This photo comes from the official Bandcamp page of Xiu Xiu.

Sweet, unsettling, sour, light, anxious, robust, beautiful, horrifying, saccharine, sardonic, misanthropic: These are the words I imagine make up the conceptual mood board of Xiu Xiu. The group’s entire career can be described as confronting the horror and beauty of reality while also investigating the mystery of what lies between the two. They connect to both a deeply human emotion in their work while also striving to push their adventurous and experimental nature. However, this has been achieved with varying degrees of success.

While their uncompromising pursuit toward stretching music to its limits is admirable and often awe-inspiring, sometimes it leads to projects that feel comparatively empty. Particularly their last project, Girl with Basket of Fruit, felt like the duo went fully down the rabbit hole of experimentation at the cost of a diminished human connection. However, on OH NO, Xiu Xiu has managed to achieve every goal they’ve set for themselves, leading to the most fully formed, conceptually engaging and triumphantly strange release they’ve ever made.

While still in the process of touring for Girl with Basket of Fruit, just as he was starting to write OH NO, frontman Jamie Stewart went through a series of betrayals that would leave him in a state of crippling disillusionment and solitude. This would result in the canceling of the tour and a serious evaluation of his mental health. Ultimately, his reconnection with friends from his past ended up being the main inspiration for the album. OH NO is all about the relationships humans have with society and in particular each other, resulting in something that’s equal parts erotic and platonic.

To work within the spirit of the project, Xiu Xiu made a collaborative album, with each song having a different artist duetting with Stewart (Sharon Van Etten, Grouper, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and Liz Harris just to name a few). This turned out to be a great choice, as it takes the album from one man talking about the human connection to two people acting out their own relationship; any human relationship does not consist of one singular perspective.

Lyrically, Stewart retains his typically cryptic and metaphorical aphorisms, but the emotional resonance in his voice and in the music itself provides a deep sense of clarity to the messages he’s trying to get across. He pumps his own anxieties of alienation from the world into each song. For example, the track “Goodbye For Good” (which coincidentally might be one of their most powerful songs Xiu Xiu has ever made) starts off with the lines, “For certain the world doesn’t need you / Plants find you disgusting.” There’s an immediate devastation that is quickly followed by a sense of absurdity, which results from the way he plays with the wording and the strange imagery that he conjures. The music only furthers this feeling.

Musically, it would seem like Xiu Xiu has toned down their experimentation from the prior release in favor of something more accessible to accommodate their collaborations; however, I would argue that OH NO is no less unusual than Girl with Basket of Fruit. Instead of trying to saturate every available space with harsh textures and new sounds, they opt to take a traditional song structure and subtly deconstruct it with moments of bizarreness. It turns out to be much more effective in creating a completely unsettling atmosphere — Angela Seo put together some of her best production for the group yet.

And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for the duo. Every song manages to find its own beauty within the sharp sourness that surrounds it, as if to say that there is some beauty to be found in the vast shittiness that can come with trying to connect with other people.

Stewart said it best himself, “Although there is an ‘I HATE PEOPLE’ pin on my guitar strap, I hate them less now.” When I think back to the words I used to describe Xiu Xiu and their musical endeavor, I can’t help but find that it’s also a pretty accurate description of humanity. The words also perfectly capture the tone of the album.

Ultimately, OH NO is an organized clutter of raw emotions that builds into a moment of epiphany, where we realize that there is something gorgeous about being alone together.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at gadband@umich.edu.