N.B. This post doesn't contain major spoilers for Twin Peaks or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. However, it may not make much sense if you haven’t seen them. Content warning: sexual abuse/rape/abortion
You stop in at the Roadhouse for a beer with the truckers and the bikers, and you’re serenaded by the vapourous vocals of Julee Cruise. No swaggering rockabilly or country music here; only reverb-drenched ballads that drift at the speed of clouds. Such is Cruise’s apparent stature as a local artist in Twin Peaks that we hear her records playing even in isolated log cabins far out in the neighbouring forest.
Badalamenti and Lynch’s iconic soundtrack penetrates deep into the lives of the residents of Twin Peaks. Cruise’s is the Voice from Another Place that lulls the town into its deep, deep sleep.
The singing of words can constitute the performance of utterance itself: sudden, spontaneous speech acts, like the explosive ‘Good God!’ with which Jamie Stewart bursts onto the first track on his band’s first album, Knife Play. But the singing of words can also constitute a re-singing: the singing of a song already sung, reading from a script, following instructions or a series of ritual actions. We hear the original song, we hear its re-performance, and we hear the gap between the two.
When Xiu Xiu play live, Jamie Stewart performs the effort in singing someone else’s song. This is the case even when he is performing his own songs: the impossibility of reproducing those original solitary outbursts (nocturnal rants in bathroom mirrors, gnashing voicemails sent to dead numbers) in front of a crowd of spectators, demanding that same contouring of suffering, the same poised play of sweetness and excrement.
Most of all though, we hear the effort in singing borrowed lines, stolen identities. Stewart’s intense vocal style is often most pronounced on his recorded covers (the Tu Mi Piaci EP, ‘Fast Car’ on A Promise, and especially the recent Nina and Unclouded Sky). Onstage, that strain in his voice appears also in his face and body as he forces each phrase from his throat, gargling vowels and squeezing out loose globs of faltering pitch, eyes white and flickering, neck craned, drenched in sweat. The labour required for each utterance is immense; even then, his vocals hang awkwardly in the air, sounding unnatural, wrong.
To presume to sing someone else’s song, to embody someone else’s vocal self. Drunken karaoke without a backing track, whispered under one’s breath in the street, on the bus. To be insufficient and unworthy of these notes, these words, this beauty. And for these notes to be, in themselves, similarly insufficient and empty.