Album Review: The xx – Coexist
They might not have been around for all that long, but the members of The xx have had more to deal with in the first few years of their careers than anyone could have anticipated. After the release of their first album in 2009, they found themselves in the full glare of the music media spotlight with a (thoroughly deserved) Mercury Prize win in 2010. Along the way, they lost a band member, and one of the remaining three musicians became involved in all sorts of lucrative production and remix projects. Add to the list of duties all of those DJ spots, having to accommodate a rapidly expanding fanbase, and the fact that their music has been peddled on countless television shows and adverts, and you can’t help but worry for the group. From such shy, intimate beginnings, how can they hold up against the ridiculous levels of expectation for album number two?
The thing is, their debut wasn’t exactly instantly ground-breaking. Rather, it felt more like a secret between the band-members which was accidentally spilled into the outside world, where it slowly found its way into the hearts of thousands of listeners. The subject of heartbreak is not exactly a fresh topic, but The xx cater to a different kind of sadness than most. Rather than documenting messy break-ups and melodrama, theirs is music for the broken bedroom: to soundtrack the isolation of a crowded dancefloor; the poignancy of the lonely train ride home. Considering both their deft handling of such a subject and the ethereal, indie-meets-post-dubstep sound with which they dress it, it’s not surprising that they strike such a chord.
Immersing yourself in their – distinctly nocturnal – world for the first time is like clutching at smoke. Reverb-laced guitar lines glisten for a few seconds before vanishing into the darkness; the shuffling beats refuse to stay in focus for too long; and – particularly on Coexist – song structures are slippery and occasionally hard to follow. Their sound might be skeletal, but don’t be fooled: there is substance to be found. On its glossy surface, Angels may sound like a paean to the heart-swelling capabilities of romance, but listen to the sound of that underwater guitar combined with Romy Madley-Croft’s panda-eyed sighs, and it could easily be interpreted as despairing rather than exultant. It recognises the futility of love and the pain of potential loss, or as Madley-Croft puts it, “like dreaming of angels / and leaving without them”.
In the months leading up to this album’s release, the band began listing various rave-flavoured music on the Internet as inspiration for new material. We all started to expect that this would result in a more dance-oriented sound, pushing The xx further into the nightclub. However, this isn’t the case: the musical lynchpin of the group, Jamie Smith, has rejected the beefier styles of his recent projects in favour of more subtle textures. On Coexist, the beats are sparser, the atmospherics mistier. Occasionally he dabbles in new territory (steel pans, house piano, strange wailing effects), but for the majority of the record, he remains in the shadows, continuing to supply a crucial canvas on which Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim can add colour and dimensions.
And in their twinned vocals, there is a very faint sense of an increase in confidence present in this record. If xx was the sound of wide-eyed naivety in the face of love’s first flush, on Coexist there’s a sense of hurt underpinning those hushed whispers. They’ve been bruised on their journey, and it’s clear to hear on songs such as the prowling Fiction, where desperation threatens to seep through the cracks in Sim’s voice. Their vocals have matured ever so slightly: there’s a little less trembling nervousness and a little more surety this time around. Lyrically, the two conjure up some universally arresting images of strained relationships, although admittedly, there are a handful of moments where they fall into the trap of being slightly too vague.
That said, when they get the balance right, the results are devastating, especially with the arrangements as naked as they are. And believe me, this album takes the idea of ‘stripped-back’ to a whole new level. Listening back to xx after Coexist, it’s surprising to hear how busy it sounds by comparison. Of course, both albums have minimalism as their mantra, but there’s little on display here as instant as, say, the mistily entwining guitars of Crystallised, or the shuffling pangs of Islands. Comparing the two records, xx sounds much spikier – poppy, even. Coexist flows by fluidly with a minimum of fanfare or fuss, with several of the songs during its second half almost seeming to melt into one another.
That’s not to say it’s an impenetrable listen. The xx have an ability to fleck even the most desolate of soundscapes with moments of striking beauty. Tides recalls the short sweetness of VCR, and throws in a rolling bass groove. Elsewhere, Chained features a painfully direct closing refrain of “we used to be closer than this”, and the aching confessionals of Missing are pierced by a sharpened guitar which cuts like glass. Prepare to feel your heart in your mouth on numerous occasions this time around, as Madley-Croft and Sim reflect on happy relationships turned sour by simple, fatal mistakes. To borrow a lyric from the thumping shimmer of Our Song, The xx still “know all the words / to take you apart”.
The big question is: does Coexist match the band’s astonishing original album? It’s a tough one to call at this point. As distant and detached as it may seem right now, time could reveal more to Coexist: perhaps a few years down the line, we’ll be viewing this as their masterpiece – a baby-step towards something even more beguiling. But for now, xx grips the strongest. That said, Coexist is a beautiful record, which shows the group delicately refining their sound. They’ve proved that they can move beyond an exquisite debut, and now they’re carving their own mysterious path through this troubling world.
“If someone believed me, they would be as in love with you as I am.”