10 Years, 100 Songs: #68. “I Won’t Rest Until I Forget About It”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 27, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
(Note: Clip is not an officially sanctioned video, and is not necessarily endorsed by IITS)
The older I get, and the more music I stuff into my ears and eventual long-term memory, the more willing I am to overlook flaws in the face of true originality. Now, I usually hate statements like the one I made right there, because the implications of it are generally three-fold: 1) That music that is unique is automatically better than music that is cliched, 2) That music today isn’t trying very hard to actually be new, and 3) That there was a time, however long ago, when a much higher number of people cared about breaking new musical ground and saw it as their central ambition to do so. I agree with none of those sentiments. I just have come to realize the degree of difficulty it takes to make music that sounds and/or feels like nothing that came before it–there’s a whole lot of people making tunes out there, and it takes a truly talented and profoundly strange artist to stand out so clearly from amongst them. So it feels only right to devote a place on this list to the man this decade for whom I can most definitively say was the first, only, and last of his kind, a musician who for better or worse (and usually both) was totally without peer–Jamie Stewart, the mastermind behind Xiu Xiu.
Stewart had many gifts, but his most valuable one was certainly his fearlessness. When it comes to music, “honesty” is a term that is often overrated and usually misapplied, but with Stewart, there was never any doubt that he was giving you the real deal. His songs were, if you’ll excuse the somewhat unpleasant analogy, the musical equivalent of dry heaving. The feeling you get after you’ve thrown up all you feel you possibly have inside you, but yet there’s still something deeper there that you want to get out–that was the territory that Stewart charted. It went beyond the literal–his songs were rarely straightforward confessional–to the gutteral, where the emotional intensity was at its very root. He was manic, he was depressive, he was gay, he was straight, he was timid, he was incredibly violent, he was unlistenably somber and he was a funny motherfucker–you got so much of him on record that it seemed impossible that he was holding anything back.
That fearlessness extended to his artistic choices as well, meaning that to risk brilliance, Stewart was more than OK with falling flat on his face–something he ended up doing on more than one occasion. Did he need to change the lyrics in his otherwise devestating cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” from “been working at a canteen store” to the jarringly over-syllabic “been working at East Side’s Health and Children’s Center”? I’d tend to think not. Was putting a naked Asian man holding a doll as the cover to its parent album, A Promise, a good idea? Depends on if you care about your album selling at Best Buy, I guess. Has anyone yet come up with an explanation as to how anti-war creed “Support Our Troops OH!” isn’t actually a stupider song than Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”? If they have, I haven’t heard it. But ultimately, these stumbles just made Jamie more compelling–nearly every truly great artist looks like an idiot some of the time, and it was good to know that even if it was to his own detriment, Stewart refused to censor himself.
Stewart as a songwriter rarely embraced the Big Moment in his craft, but the one that I think most fans would agree on being his definitive would be “I Luv the Valley OH!” Appearing as the second track on his most well-received album, Fabulous Muscles, “Valley” seemed like the culmination of most of the darkest themes featured in Stewart’s songs–depression, childhood trauma, suicide–packaged in something that vaguely resembled a pop song. That’s a relative term, of course–for a pop song, “Valley” still lacks a true chorus, features several head-scratching lyrics, and gets a wailing, unhinged vocal performance from Stewart that would get it banned from even the most progressive of (non-college) FM radio stations within two seconds. But I’m sorry, with the guitar work in this song–the way the two separate lines intertwine with the bass in the verses, and how they just pulverize on the song’s bridge (not all that dissimilar from the one from “Maps,” actually)–I can’t help but think that with a different vocal, and a thundering drum part that kicks in during the first verse, you’ve got a Modern Rock #1 hit in the year 2003.
However, much as I would’ve loved to hear what a pure rock/pop Xiu Xiu song would’ve sounded like–hey, I am who I am–it’s hard to have qualms with a finished product that is manages to be as musically striking as this, while remaining one of the most caustic and raw things I would hear in the Naughty Oughties. The drums thump and menace in the background, waiting to explode into an endlessly-echoing cacophany in the song’s final minute. The guitars and bass cut and pierce with a vengeance, as they all seem cranked up to dangerously-high levels, like Stewart wanted every part of “Valley” to sound as cathartic as his vocal would. The production in general is lo-fi but unlimiting, as nothing is made to sound clean or pretty, but everything is allowed to sound huge and commanding. And needless to say, Stewart definitely brought his A-Game on the microphone, singing with such undiluted emotion that it sounds like he cut his soul, stomach and throat all to ribbons just to get out what he knew would be the vocal of a lifetime. (Though to be fair, Jamie has at least a couple other performances that could qualify for those honors as well–if he can still get out a croak by the time he hits middle age, it’ll be a miracle of modern science).
I’m not going to do much of a lyrical analysis here–partly because I know I couldn’t do it justice, but mostly because my good friend Kareem Estefan already basically wrote the definitive take on the song back when we were writing for Stylus. It’s a much better testatement to the greatness of the song and the man than my article is or ever could be, and in fact it was kind of a jerk move on my part to make you read this far into the article just to get the link to it. I’ll just say that Stewart seemed to realize that he had a very special moment going on with this song, so he was wise to pack it with as many eye-widening, blood-chilling phrases of intense, disturbing lyrical implication as he did. “It’s a pill and you’ve got to take it,” “It’s a razor and you make a threat,” “I won’t rest until I forget about it”–they’re unspecific but impossibly foreboding, with an entire lifetime’s worth of emotional weight behind them, and bedded with the almost unbearable musical tension going on underneath them, they seem to be leading inextricably to tragedy–which comes, musically at least, in that horrifying and unforgettable climax, “Je t’aime le valley / OHHHHHH!!!!!!!” It’s as unnerving as anything you’ll hear from this decade, and likely just about any one to follow.
A couple of my friends in high school got a chance to meet Jamie Stewart–I think one of them was interviewing him for his school paper at the time, maybe–and rather than being the socially stunted, nervous wreck that I would have expected, they basically reported that he was a normal fellow, with a nice girlfriend, a winning smile and a firm handshake. (Maybe). I might have been a little disappointed at the time, but in the end, it made total sense to me, and actually made me appreciate his music more. If he got it all out in the songs–which he certainly seemed to–maybe he didn’t have any of it left to carry over into his day-to-day life. In a bizarre, singularly Xiu Xiuian way, it was one of the most rock and roll things I had ever heard.
(Have any thoughts or rememberances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”