Deconstructing: The xx

We’re rebooting our popular Deconstructing franchise, which kicked off in February of this year. In this space, a rotating cast of writers will offer opinions on, well, almost anything: an artist, an issue, a genre, a trend … Those writers will frame their subjects, and take a side — to inform you, of course, as well as engage you in the sort of commentary and criticism we’re seeing in the comment section. Today, Aaron Lariviere offers his thoughts on the xx.

The first time I heard xx, I was sitting at work, headphones on, expecting something … different. It hit me when I listened to “Crystalised,” the xx’s first single: a perfectly realized aesthetic condensed into three minutes of sparse, push-and-pull pop. The guitars were rough around the edges and the vocals even rougher, but the arrangement was smart; the song was immediate and bracing in its simplicity, familiar parts shaped into something newer and younger than I’d expect such parts capable of sounding. My gut reaction was that it sounded like Interpol, at least the guitars. Like that band’s debut, xx showed a young group with a gift for folding space into fastidious arrangements, making music that sounded like it should have taken years to gestate. They knew how to breathe and knew when to rest — after all, the art of playing well, they say, is knowing when not to play. Somehow it felt strange to trust a band like that, so new and unnaturally developed, even while you love what you’re hearing and you know it’s perfectly real. Questions remain. Where did it come from? How did they get here so fast and so young? It hardly seems fair.

In the case of the xx, the first album was an intersection of charm, a fascinating complement of personalities and impeccable taste. These kids were listening to Young Marble Giants and Japan (and were willing to admit it), and they weren’t shy about lifting melodies from Bronski Beat when they weren’t trying to crib the tone of “Wicked Game” (see “Infinity” and its inevitable mashup). The blend of guitars and electronics could sometimes feel like a Depeche Mode demo produced by T. Bone Burnett, synthetics grounded by simmering production and smoky reverb. They drew from minimalist music of all stripes while covering modern hip-hop and breaking it down to the same requisite chunks as the rest of their songs. I always thought they sounded a bit like Faithless without actually rapping or going full-on dance. But it’s the way in which they do it all — the way they draw from obvious touchstones to craft something so clean and refined that still sounds instantly recognizable — that’s the true art of the xx.

Regarding the question of taste: Subsequent years and mountains of subsequent work have made it clear Jamie xx is the band’s wild card. His beats and production, and presumably his skill at arranging, go a long way to elevate the band above their basic trappings. Every element is part of a seamless whole on the first record — the songs are stripped to pieces, but each piece feels integral and fucking right. A guitar might step in and pick up where a bass left off, while a drum clicks softly in the distance — underneath it all, there’s a quiet, skittering heartbeat — as a unified whole, it works. Jamie’s gift is his invisible touch, his silk-gloved understanding of what the song needs, and what we need but don’t know we need from the song. After the success of the first record, Jamie’s cache as a producer and remix artist shot to the stratosphere obscenely fast; he turned in A-game mixes for A-list talent, rising to the occasion as he rose in prominence.

Which isn’t to discount the singers: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims keep it all close to the chest, rarely rising above a whisper, but the feelings they express cut through loud and clear. Heart-on-sleeve hesitations about sex, the withholding of sex, or rewarding with sex … yeah, it’s pretty much all sex. It’s hard to imagine that they aren’t a couple when you hear that level of connection, the way they take turns singing to one another before coming together to drive home a gentle chorus (despite that we now know a romantic dalliance between them is more than a little unlikely). The fact that they’re so young and take everything so damn seriously makes it that much more compelling, like we’re watching a teen melodrama unfold one couplet at a time. As an older listener, it’s easy to look back at those barely legal years as a wash of overblown, hormone-driven hysterics — and we’re not wrong. At the same time, it’s hard to forget exactly how huge and important those feelings could feel: The insecurity, vulnerability, and willingness to please that came from such a genuine place, no matter how misguided or naïve, whether it meant half as much as we thought it did at the time or not.

That first album carried them far: unending blog worship, a Mercury Prize, several singles released to huge fanfare in the UK, and some serious leverage in the US via television placements. They lost fourth member Baria Qureshi early on, and the group solidified into the three core members we know so well. All the while, the band continued to tour incessantly, which led to ever-increasing confidence in their abilities: Oliver Sims learned to sing like a man and less like the tone-deaf kid on xx; Romy expanded the depth and texture of her voice while carrying the torch as the lone guitarist; and Jamie brought his production experience abroad back to the band.

When the time came to craft a follow-up, we might have expected something further developed, something greater, grander, and more impossibly impressive than the greatness that had already come. But that’s the weight of expectation talking. Brilliant debuts are impossible to follow, and nothing kills the dream faster than great expectations. The xx’s new album, Coexist, is disappointing, though that description probably sells it short: It’s gorgeous, entirely worth hearing, and full of subtle textures worth taking the time to discover. But it’s not xx: not a brilliant debut showing us something new, something we’d never heard done in quite this way. Instead, it sounds basically like the xx always have, with a few subtle differences — more or less, it’s more of the same. Those little differences — more obvious production choices, a slight drift toward dance-club influences — don’t jump out enough to make up for what’s not here. It’s not a perfect comparison, but listening through Coexist for the first time, I kept thinking of the first two Television albums. Marquee Moon is untouchable, a perfect debut. The follow-up, Adventure, is a solid record full of good songs, an entirely likable album that does an awful lot right but never once rises to the heights of its ridiculously amazing/influential/perfect predecessor. Coexist might be the xx’s Adventure: a classic sophomore slump, and a slump only in direct comparison to the debut.

What is interesting about Coexist, though, is each member’s shift in perspective. Where xx was about sex and the uncertainty of relationships, Coexist strives to be about love. Romy sums up the sentiment on lead single “Angels” when she repeats, “Being as in love with you as I am.” It’s the same youth-informed silliness as before redirected toward an actual relationship instead of a hookup. Lyrically speaking, Oliver used to be relegated to the role of stereotypical adolescent-dude: He’d fake a little cockiness and try to play the leading man but the uncertainty in his voice left him looking like a little kid trying to act cool (which did nothing to undermine his charm). On Coexist he can suddenly sing, changing the dynamic immediately. The confidence in his voice is clear — he’s grown into the man he used to pretend to be. But somehow this disrupts the vocal dynamic. Singing together, the magic feels diminished. Both voices are more capable than ever, but the feeling that these two scared kids are clinging to each other for dear life, that they need each other more than anyone has needed anyone, that feeling is gone. Second single “Chained” has a telling refrain: “We used to be closer than this.” Intentional or not, that distance found its way into the album. In Jamie’s case, it’s hard not to wonder if all his time out in the world left him a touch overconfident. Gone are the silk gloves: his presence is suddenly conspicuously present. Louder drums and bass and a willingness to make impossible-to-ignore production choices mean the production often says volumes more than either singer. From a clinical perspective, there are some fascinating textures and choices, but it just means you pay attention to the scenery instead of the songs. We’re left with a half-step forward and a tired stagger back.

I can’t help wondering if it’s a blip on the radar, a slight misstep in a long line of successes, or if it’s the death knell sounding all too soon. Hell, to qualify as a “slump,” the band has to rise and overcome such pedestrian difficulties next time around. The alternative is a lot less pleasant: Television never really recovered from Adventure — no longer the brilliant upstarts with a perfect album to their name, they pretty much fell apart, reconvening only for a still-awesome-but-equally-unimportant reunion album a dozen years later. The price of great success can be as simple and cruel as being forced to live in your own shadow. But of course it doesn’t have to be that way. Looking back at the second Liars album — which no one especially liked or understood at the time — it now fits well within the band’s grand arc, bridging the gap from one sound to another. I hope that’s the case with the xx, too. There’s too much charm and personality and great taste on display to hope for anything less. Human nature dictates that we get something brilliant and immediately demand more brilliance from that source. The xx have one great album to their name, and now, one merely good one. The future is wide open.

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Stream Coexist here.

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Comments (26)
  1. I still have to agree to disagree, I think coexist is much more dynamic than xx and a great sophomore album.

    • Thank you! I also think it’s a remarkable step forward. Disappointed listeners missed the point if they expected the repeated formula or a huge sounding record.

  2. Anyone else like both albums about equally? Repeated plays over a long period of time may not help Coexist as much as they did xx, but so far the albums strike me in different but equally loveable ways.

    Also, best Deconstructing article to date, IMO.

  3. Sums the second album up perfectly; a great, beautiful album that doesn’t really break the mold the xx have made for themselves. And I’d argue that’s a good thing, though a more grandiose, swelling xx would be quite interesting.

    But I can’t help but feel that everyone is a little hypocritical in saying that. Look at Beach House’s last two albums. You could practically mix and match songs from both and make a new album that sounds no different. But something about the xx’s emptiness so-to-speak in their songs makes everyone rant and rave about how they haven’t grown or evolved and that Coexist is worse for it.

    • While Beach House may have the same tone and style in most of their albums, I think most people that hear them know what they’re getting especially after 4 albums by them. The xx on the other hand are a different story. This is their 2nd album. Took them a good three years to make this thing and what we got was an album that is very similar to s/t and not much else. It just makes you shrug and go ‘really’? At least Bloom took Beach House two years to come out. Just seems the xx didn’t know what to do with the hype and just decided to play it safe. While reviewers and fellow listeners may love this album, I just had the feeling of where’s the beat going to actually kick in. Perhaps I expected too much after listening to Jamie’s remix album We’re New Here, but I felt there were better beats on better minimalism albums than what I found on Coexist. Maybe Coexist is just too deep for me.

      • Meh, this argument of: [paraphrasing] “coexist was spaced out a year longer than the difference between bloom and teen dream, therefore it better be a much better album” is utterly stupid to me. Just because another year went by doesn’t mean the band was sitting down and working on the album 50% harder, and thus it needs to be 50% better. Jamie XX had that gil scott heron album come out in between as well, and who knows what the other member of The XX were doing. They could’ve put this album together in a month for all we know, not that time should even make a difference.

        Also to address your problem of “where does the beat come in?.” Uhhh, please point me to where the beat comes in on the s/t my friend. I’m not really sure what you were expecting. The first album was met with criticism at first, but ultimately praised for being an album that many thought brought space back to music, a sense of something ethereal and delicate, not some skrillex song where the beat drops (although on my first listen to reunion i found the second half quite satisfying.)

        To be honest, I think that the difference between coexist and xx relatively compared to bloom and teen dream is much starker, and i was frustrated with blooms use of recycled sounds, not to say i found it necessarily underrated.

        But to be quite honest I’ve been perplexed by stereogum’s staffs dismissiveness (is that a word?) of coexist. I have a sad feeling that when p4ks review of it comes it with a best new artist labeling that people will be biting their tongues (not unlike what happened with m83′s hurry up we’re dreaming.) I’m just sayinn…

        • Easy there. I’m not looking for like massively over-the-top beats, I was just looking for the stuff I found in We’re New Here and other artists like James Blake and I felt like I didn’t get it from this album. Not a bad album but just not for me. Also took Jamie’s comment about it being ‘club music’ a bit too seriously before Oliver and Romy said it was a bit different than that. As for the Stereogum/Pitchfork thing, in the end, it’s up to us the listeners whether or not we enjoyed this album or not and not by some rating that a publication/blog gave out. Also I loved Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

    • I completely agree, if coexist were the xx’s first album it could be raved as the years best so far. I understand that we should expect artists to grow and evolve, but I think maybe some people are asking too much. I’ve been playing this album daily since it leaked weeks ago, and I honestly can’t say there’s anything unlikable or problematic with it.

      Its also very apparent to me that Jamie XX’s fingers are dug in much deeper into tracks on this album than they were on xx, and that’s a great thing.

    • Think its because you could touch and feel Beach House a little more…these guys seem like they rather keep their distance which is fine right? Not sure where all the BH parallels are coming from anyway. This album does not hide from what it wants to be at all; It’s a slow burn that’s not at all afraid to just float in its own murk.

  4. Or maybe we need to accept the possibility of a record so excellent we don’t understand it yet.

    No, but seriously, I think this article missed a nice opportunity to actually deconstruct what’s going on with this album. Instead, it’s basically just another review that says “I expected something grander, which this doesn’t deliver, so it’s kind of a disappointment.”

    But why did you expect something grander? Furthermore, you admit that this album does sound differently, largely as a result of Jamie’s increased presence. Why is the production here a negative, then? And if this album does represent a restrained step forward from xx, which I think it does, is that not what we should have probably expected in the first place from a band whose entire aesthetic is defined by restraint?

    And is this simply another case of an overhyped sophomore album, or is some aspect of our reaction specific to the xx? If a restrained step forward fits their aesthetic, and is nevertheless disappointing to the audience, does that say something about the band’s aesthetic? Does it say something about the audience?

    There’s lots of interesting think-piece material about the critical reaction to this album, and it’s only really touched on here. Especially since I disagree that this album represents a particular disappointment, I would have been quite interested to see more analysis of that response, rather than a simple presentation of it.

    • My first draft had a much deeper review stuffed in there (literally three times as long), but it was just too much, and touched on too much of the same stuff as the Premature Evaluation.

      In answer to your specific questions: I’ve listened to the new record at least 30 times over the past several weeks. I don’t get the impression it’s about to open like a puzzle box and suddenly become brilliant. If it did, I would be a happy man. The songs themselves simply aren’t as strong; the vocal connection is diminished; the production and the arrangement of the production elements (beats, synths, steel drums, and other ephemera) is often interesting but just as often distracting. If one of the virtues of the first album was “everything in its place”, here a lot of things are either out of place or missing altogether. And probably the single biggest issue I have that wasn’t mentioned in the actual piece is that there’s nothing even remotely approaching the climactic build at the end of “Infinity”. The first album had a subtle arc that came in the form of song variety. Coexist is a straight line from point A back to a point B that looks an awful lot like point A. We expect something grand because we were given something grand last time around. The first few songs of Coexist hint that it will deliver something similarly powerful (the record is definitely front-loaded to these ears), but it mostly peters out by the midway point.

      The beauty here is that we’ll all disagree on the finer points. I hope the record does prove to be brilliant for most listeners, but that wasn’t my experience.

    • Who says it’s a rule bands need to have a grander follow up? How often does that ever work out? Didn’t everyone like the first one BECAUSE of the simplicity?? They almost went the opposite direction of what people expected, which I like.

  5. I agree with a lot that was said in the article above.

    A good litmus test, “is the album is still good enough to buy?”

    I think so.

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  7. i think the xx declined a request for an interview…

  8. My theory why SOME people are disappointed is because they want to like it as much as they like the first album, and they want to be aware of that after the FIRST listen. They have forgotten what it was it like when they first heard the xx. It’s the type of music that grows on you, it takes time to build inside you. I love it. Chained is my jam.

  9. crabtron  |   Posted on Sep 5th, 2012 +4

    I quip the following quip: “Jamie xx is the band’s wild card”? I would’ve said he’s their “x-factor”!

    I just listened to the album on NPR, and was initially disappointed with it as a whole. But now I’ve zeroed in on three tracks, which I am cycling through: “Reunion,” “Missing,” and “Fiction.” I think I’m going to slowly get to like each track by taking them each out of the larger context, and listening like that for a while. Sim’s starting to sound a bit like Brendan Perry–his voice is just fuller on this album. Those “hai-ee-ai–o-o”s in the background of “Missing” sound like they could be in a Dead Can Dance song. Of course, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. And I’d say “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” is more of a club song than anything on this album. Not that I really mind either way.

  10. The real question is: Are you better off today than you were three years ago when xx came out?

  11. When you hear a band like the xx for the first time you are affected by the surprise of discovery and all the positive personal emotions that go with that. Expecting a band to recreate that feeling for you is, I think, asking a bit too much. The xx can’t go back to being a band that you have never heard before. But they can go on creating music which is true to their artistic vision and talent, and I think this new album is utterly faithful to that.

  12. XX was an absolutely fantastic album. Untouchable. Coexist however is a hideous attempt at a follow up. Terrible album. Disappointing.

  13. like a long awkward breakup that never finalizes but neither mends. hype

  14. I understand why the people defending the xx here are doing so. They are realists, and understand that a creating a follow-up to the self-titled would be a task that no one is up to, not even the band that created the self-titled. The term sophomore slump is out there for a reason. It is impossible to follow up something perfect with something more perfect. When perfection has already been achieved, there is only one way to go.

    Absolutely spot on review, particularly with respect to Coexist’s overproduction. For example, have you heard the acoustic version of ‘angels’ live in tokyo? How much better is that than the album version? (http://youtu.be/dYXejsku99Q). What on earth is that extended bridge doing in the album? The answer is that is could only be there if you were trying to hard to make something new. The stripped version in Tokyo is much better. But that’s exactly what you’d expect from a band that did it perfectly the first time.

    And of course, if we had received ‘the xx: self-titled 2′ we would have to it as less than perfect for being unoriginal. Again, kudos to the xx for starting at the top of the hill, but the downside of course is that being there leaves one only one direction to go.

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