xx Turns 10
The xx came out of nowhere, and suddenly they had been around forever. The band’s rise happened in a summer, when their debut album came out 10 years ago today. By the fall, they were playing packed shows Stateside; a couple months after that they soundtracked an Olympics commercial that was truly inescapable; and two years later there were entire lists dedicated to the best xx covers, from musicians throwing their hat into the ring in an attempt to pay tribute to a young band that already felt like a legacy act.
Their fast ascension was a surprisingly long process. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, who had known each other since they were practically babies, realized around 14 or 15 that they were both making music on their own, and came to the conclusion that they might as well make it together. They uploaded songs and covers to Myspace, ones where their shadowy sound was in its earliest stages but still clearly defined. When they decided they wanted to start playing live shows, they recruited school friend Baria Qureshi to play guitar (she’d later leave the band a few months after the debut was released). They caught the attention of Caius Pawson, who had been carving out his own niche at XL Recordings, Young Turks, and was on the hunt for an act to put his imprint on the map.
“They were very frail and shy kids,” Pawson told The New Yorker in the group’s definitive profile. “Some people are born ready. This band wasn’t born ready.” So, smartly, he didn’t apply pressure. He let them develop in their own time. Jamie Smith soon came into the fold, offering up drum patterns that provided more structure to the band’s melancholic wandering. They rehearsed together, continuously, for almost two years. They graduated high school, had to make a decision about whether to pursue the band full-time or go off on their normal lives. They chose the band.
They started thinking about an album, what would eventually become xx. Pawson initially tried to get them to work with a producer who had more experience — both Diplo and Kwes linked up with the group in the early days — but the recording process ended up being almost completely insular. Smith stepped up to produce all of xx, in a garage attached to the XL offices that had been newly converted into a studio. Alongside engineer Rodaidh McDonald, who helped steer them in the right direction, the xx hit on a combination of sounds that was alchemical, uncluttered, and absolutely undeniable.
Ten years on, the xx’s legacy cannot be overstated. They were a game changer, a harbinger of what was to come. Even beyond the more mainstream, critically respected examples — the Rihanna sample, Beyoncé co-sign, the watery aesthetic that would come to define Frank Ocean and a generation of R&B — their fingerprints can be heard all over the unassuming Spotify pop that dominates playlists and listening habits today. But xx was never disengaged like that. Despite its minimalism, it’s not background listening; it’s listening that takes over your entire body. The music is still and it forces everything else to be still around it. It’s like good architecture: a constant game of wondering how they could possibly do all that.
At the xx’s center is the interplay between Madley Croft and Sim. These songs thrive on tension, the unspoken between every syllable. Their delivery is whispered, a secret given solid form. They sing with the weariness of someone who has fallen in and out of love a million times before, but they were only teenagers when they wrote these songs. They were riffing on big ideas that they couldn’t possibly fully understand yet, but they sang with an urgency that made you feel like they did. “Watch things on VCRs with me and talk about big love,” they sing to each other, kids shooting the shit about what it might one day be like to really feel those big emotions that they watch play out on the small screen.
Madley Croft has said that she and Sim are “singing past each other,” two beings united in their search for human connection. Both singers are gay, which means that these love songs are delivered at a physical distance; they’re sexy but also slightly removed. Their narratives do not intersect, but they do often coalesce around a single phrase, a shared theme that ties them together. Their lyrics are economical but have depth, universal truths told in a conversational, confessional tone. Taken out of context, some of them are comically simple: “Sometimes I still need you,” “I am yours now, so I don’t ever have to leave.”
But just as often they hit on a phrase that feels hopelessly complex, wise and observational beyond their years: “Maybe I said something that was wrong/ Can I make it better with all the lights turned on?,” “Basic space, open air/ Don’t look away when there’s nothing there.” They tapped into deep wanting and unassailable devotion with astounding precision. It’s both intimate and distant, like looking at something through a veil that you’re not supposed to see.
The band’s arrangements are sparse, letting their open-ended phrases hover in midair. Early xx songs are more about what’s lacking than what’s there. On subsequent albums, they’d get showier with what they could do with dance music, but here everything is intimated, static breaking through silence. When they do land on broad gestures, like the thrumming of “Basic Space” or the pitter-patter of “Heart Skipped A Beat,” these relatively small sounds feel comparatively huge in the grand scheme of the xx’s palette.
It’s a specific set of sounds and a precisely distinct feeling that even the band has had trouble living up to on their later albums. xx is the work of teenagers who weren’t too sure of themselves, but translated all of that uncertainty into music that sounded like it was made by old masters. All of the imitators in their wake have also lost something in translation, an elemental force that comes from being young and talented and just earnestly naïve enough to believe that all that anticipation and bated breath will eventually result in something great. xx is perfectly simple and perfectly complex. It’s as easily profound as Madley Croft sings on one of their most popular songs: “You just know/ You just do.” What the xx did with their debut album is irreplicable.