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.
Stream Coexist here.