The XX The XXCoexist
After countless listens to their debut album “xx”, one could start to wonder if The xx are the best thing in music from the past three or four years. And the conclusion could be that the only recent band as good, or even slightly better, is Girls. Even though there are a few differences between the two bands. The San Francisco combo, now possibly disbanded, had the advantage of having released records before. But the Londoners have two things that make them truly unique and exceptional. First of all, an impeccable aesthetic. From their elegant logo to their sombre clothing style and their triangular stage set-up, it's all been taken care of to the detail. Add to that a very particular sound that - although vaguely reminiscent of bands from the past (such as Young Marble Giants, Chris Isaak, and The Cure) - is like no other band these days, and you have something quite unique. Over time, this formula of minimal pop, dark, full of silences and manufactured with an extraordinary grip on space management, has been on the rise; but that's more to do with trends, it's not because they've established themselves as a capital influence, but rather as standard bearers.
If the idea to follow-up “xx” was difficult for their fans (how to go about it? How to change such a distinctive and singular sound? How to fine-tune the sound without becoming repetitive?), imagine how it must have been for the trio. According to some declarations made a few months back, something that marked the production of “Coexist” was Jamie Smith's side-projects as a DJ and producer. At some point, they said club music was of influence on this album, which some interpreted as an indication that the LP was going to be a dance record. After hearing the album, we can say it isn't, but they're not trying to fool anyone; club music is one thing, music for clubs is something else. And this second full-length, rather than evoke images of dance floors full of people, seems to focus on what happens next; outside the club, even the morning after, when the hangover kicks in, when the resentment and the memories of amorous failure attack you, stab you in the heart.
These three years have served all three of them to grow as musicians, on every level, but it's obvious that the winner is Jamie Smith, whether that is because he's the producer, or because the three decided to stress the bass more. He's all over “Chained”, a rhythmic piece with Burialesque beats and few more elements: a guitar briefly appears, and Romy and Oliver start their first vocal exchanges, seemingly entering a conflictive dialogue, dramatic, stepping on each other's toes. The temperature rises on “Sunset”, with a sexy, almost funky bass line, some raw percussion and one of the best lyrics they've ever written, with some beautiful lines (“ when you see me again / I will greet you as a friend / It is understood / That we did all we could”). This deserves a separate chapter. While the first album dealt with love, here it's about breaking up, how to deal with it. It's about relationships that end in tragedy, and, weeks later, result in a violent and uncomfortable meeting ( “I always thought it was sad / That we act like strangers / After all that we had / We act like we had never met”). There's a tragic resignation in those words, and a demonstration of maturity. The stellar danceable hat-trick is completed with “Swept Away”, actually the only track playable in a proper club, and possible the best one on this album, a real anthem. Its sound is close to that of diva house, especially because of the priceless delivery of a feline Madley-Croft, turned into Tracey Thorn for a few minutes.
This is where Romy has made a big step forward; gaining a confidence that is surprising, if we compare it to her shyness during their first gigs after releasing their debut album. Her partner also has his big moments, such as on “Fiction”, the first song he sings on his own (if we consider “Fantasy” an interlude). Here, and on other tracks, Oliver shows a lot of self-confidence, allowing himself to go into the lower, almost baritone registers, gaining transcendence and emotion. Moreover, the piece is a good example of how they operate the silences, of their excellent skills in writing evocative lyrics ( “Fiction / When we're not together / Mistaken for a vision / Something of my own creation”) and of how they impose some unexpected changes in rhythm, in this case with a very dry beat giving the whole a disheartening feel.
The key elements of “xx” are still here, but much more spaced out, particularly emphasising their minimalism. There are rarely more than two instruments playing at the same time. The improvement also lies in the better song constructions, with the intention of playing with the listener's expectations. “Angels” could easily have been a track on the first album, an extraordinarily beautiful piece, with an ultra-thin guitar, plenty of silences and Romy's whispers - to which they add a percussion that sounds in the distance, giving it a slightly unnerving vibe. You expect a beat, but it never comes. And there are other new instruments, too. For example, “Reunion” is guided by Jamie's metallic drums, while on “Tides” they're spot on with the inclusion of some sombre strings, which never become schmaltzy or clutter up the track. They are extra elements that add warmth, like the voice and the bass do on other passages. Worth mentioning as well are certain novelties with regards to the vocal interactions. Though normally, Oliver and Romy engage in dialogue, on “Missing” they switch roles halfway through the song. While initially Sim takes control, and she limits herself to some discreet background singing, after two minutes it's the other way around. The song is also a good example of the aforementioned improvement in composition. Those five seconds of silence after the words “And now there is no hope for you and me” say more than many other tracks ever will.
Of course, the album has its flaws, especially on “Unfold”. But The xx at their weakest are still rather good. It's another piece about love, but it doesn't reach the level of greatness of “Sunset”. It's serene, delicate, and, with “Angels”, the most intimate of the pack; but it lacks the emotional impact of the other songs, which probably makes it the weakest track in their repertoire (even though the mechanical, locomotive-like rhythm is tasty). “Try” is odd, and slightly dissatisfactory, although it does introduce some interesting elements, like that kind of synthesiser lament running throughout the track. There's something terrifying about it, something we could also say about “Fiction”, which boasts one of the best guitar lines on the album and some sounds reminiscent of waves hitting the rock in the middle of a storm. “Our Song” is a worthy closing track, a great way to finish the job, but it's not as good as “Stars”. But then again, there's always something to complain about. The whole self-referential thing, which some might interpret as ironic, is interesting, as is the fuzz part towards the end.
“Coexist” is much more than anyone could ask for from The xx. They stayed true to themselves, not betraying their trademark, almost iconic sound. The have the less-is-more principle down to an art, doing what they do best; eleven highly emotional songs, melancholic and with exactly the right amount of epic. They are, without a doubt, the best musicians of their generation.