The music made by England trio the xx can be hard to contemplate at face value because, in a sense, there’s not much there. And, much like their not-trying-to-do-too-much-but-already-iconic-somehow logo, that’s completely by design -– their self-titled debut, which was something of an unexpected sensation, was built around spare, delicately constructed hooks, melodies, and simmering vocal interplay between singers Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. XX never, at any moment, flirted with anything that could be considered an “extreme”; only later did we find out that they had an ace in the hole. It’s going to be hard to say this without meaning it as a backhanded compliment –- here goes -– but the singles from that record are so inoffensive and passive that they were almost immediately ripped off and appropriated for advertising. In the way that other bands plying heavily in mellow moods started selling out arenas (Beach House comes to mind), the xx, in a relative suddenness incongruous with the type of music that they were making, were huge overnight.
So, the attention surrounding the group’s sophomore LP Coexist is a major moment for them, and the result is an interesting one. Where many bands have stumbled in the recent past, the group pulls in where others have blown out; though Coexist sounds more expensive (this is mostly based on how much better and weightier the bass and percussion sounds, which is the hardest thing to do on the cheap), it’s a more withdrawn record. Though much has been made of Jamie xx’s rise to critical and industry stardom, mostly on the strength of his bombastic production and DJ appearances as well as his memorably artistic rework of Gil Scott-Heron’s We’re New Here, the band did the best they could to brace for the expectations. Because, the fact is, Jamie doesn’t exactly “drop the bass” on Coexist. “It’s developed, but it doesn’t seem like completely a world away,” Madley-Croft told Rolling Stone. Holding her ground, she said “This is not a dance record,” to Pitchfork. Though certain songs twitch with a pulse that wasn’t as tangibly present as before — “Sunset,” “Tides,” the four-four thump of “Reunion,” and “Swept Away” being the most striking evidence of that fact — they never hit the throttle. Madley-Croft and Sim, lyrically, seem more at ease on Coexist; optimistic, warm lines like “I think I’m ready as long as you’re with me” and “I won’t let you slip away” replacing the more sadsack teenage melodrama of The xx.
But, for those who enjoyed the Sim/Madley-Croft set pieces of that record will find those songs’ kindred spirits on Coexist, songs like “Angels” where the xx flaunts that trademark minimalism. “Fiction” and “Unfold” are hardly even there — while it certainly doesn’t help that all of the songs on Coexist are named things like “Tides,” “Missing,” “Chained,” and so on, it’s hard to construct an ice-cold line of thinking on pure vapor. A tension exists where the listener yearns for them to open it up a little bit, to let the steel-drummy pound of Jamie xx completely take over a song in a climactic way, to pull xx into a space where they haven’t really existed before. It never happens.
“I hope people will just enjoy it as a development of where we were before,” Madley-Croft said, which an an indicative thing to say on the eve of a sophomore release. With those expectations, Coexist is a success; it’s certainly a better-produced, better-sounding record than its forebear. I have no concerns about Coexist’s eventual popularity with both critics and fans, something that should be commended in an age where critical and audience response rarely line up with respect to rock music. But, you can’t help feel a little disappointed by this beautiful, often-boring record. I imagined the prospect of a more immediate, game-changing xx to be far nearer, rather than further away.
Coexist is out 9/11 on Young Turks.