My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.