Even leaving to one side its recurrent use of dissonant synths and forebodingly driven electronic beats, Xiu Xiu’s A Promise shares with a highly select handful of records, including Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, or Giles Corey’s eponymous debut, the capacity utilise crushing sadness in such a way that it is at least as effective as distorted atonality, run through a looped effects chain.
Though it may appear a less than obvious comparison, A Promise bears to me a striking similarity to D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle. Both albums display a remarkable variety in generic format and instrumental content, whilst this panoply of styles feel linked enough to function as chromatic dimensions to the prismatic event of a single origin. Both albums make use of lifted conversations between clandestine queers: where Throbbing Gristle used actual audio recordings of gay sex workers, dealing with and discussing rough trade in “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” in A Promise, many of the lyrics in “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” are ostensibly lifted directly from the conversations of an oblivious lesbian couple, meeting above Jamie Stewart. That such lyrics as
You leave me out on the steps
You dress me up like a boy
You say that I am your secret love
you say to be quiet but
I want to tell the whole world
We do it in the back of our little car
Pull up my pants and fix my bra
Go on home, go home to your kids
I’m not going to be quiet and
I’m going to tell the whole block
Clearly indicate the nature of this relationship – closeted, divided by at the very least age, responsibility and class – we can ruminate on the ethics of the archive of queer experience, at a level of recording (in one mode or another) secret conversations and secret identities, when we can also recognise the extremely disparate desires in relation to the secrecy, itself.
Just as D.o.A had “Weeping,” A Promise has its own heart-wrenching acoustic number: a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Stewart’s mode of address, so often placing himself in the feminine position as he – a queer man – repeats the words of queer women, speaks at once to the paradoxical potentials for unification across all manner of social lines, through isolation, hardship and despair. It is as such that, for all the challenging alternativity of A Promise and Xiu Xiu’s output throughout their career, it is abundantly clear there is not a hint of irony in this song’s rendition. The capacity for finding similarity within difference, through surprising requisition, reappropriation, recontextualisation and reconstitution is, I believe, an expressly queer one.
The vinyl edition I have of A Promise is relatively unique in its design, lacking the infamous candid photograph of a nude Hanoi sex worker by the name of Hang, holding the baby doll that remains in this alternative cover, upside down. Stewart’s own account of the photographs provenance is a remarkable mixture of moving, comedic, uncomfortable and frustrating in its simultaneous presentation of self-consciousness and insensitivity. Stewart’s ultimate philosophy regarding his decision to take the photograph in question, “sometimes, you’ve got to do the wrong thing,” is by no means a denial of the slight sickening response many may have to it. Whether the alternative cover here is the result of bowdlerisation is difficult to determine, but the spartan abstraction of my own edition does bring to mind Tony Just’s series of photographs of empty, sanitized restrooms that were sites of cruising – what Muñoz considered to be the spirit photography of the “ghosts of public sex.” The spectral presence of Hang remains, noticeable in his omission.