Music Reviews

The xx Coexist

(Young Turks) Rating - 8/10

It seems almost paradoxical to suggest that an artist’s debut record can be so fantastic, so well-received and so successful that they’re in a no-win situation. Yet that’s the scenario that could be facing London trio The xx. Their first album, 2009’s xx, won The Mercury Music Prize, went platinum and reached the Top 3 of the UK album chart – astonishing feats considering the type of music the band make. Their sound is sparse and intimate, suited more to dark, lonely nights of the soul rather than the communal hedonism that dominates so much of mainstream culture. Somehow, The xx tapped into something rather special in our collective psyche and reminded us of things we’d forgotten about ourselves.

But what next? xx was a bolt from the blue that redefined so much. Deviate too much from their signature sound and The xx risk losing what set them apart in the first place, but stick too closely to the established formula and attract opprobrium for a lack of progression. What makes this all the more complex is that The xx are now stars; a band whose every movement and utterance is documented. They won’t get the chance to blindside us with a sleeper hit ever again. The album title, Coexist, alludes to the effect of oil floating on water (something seen on the cover) and the relationships within the band, but it could also signify how The xx fit (or – perhaps – don’t) into the mainstream. They’re a wildly popular group almost entirely at odds with everything else that sells big.

From the first notes of opening track, Angels – simple, plaintive and caressed with a hint of reverb – it’s clear that this is an xx album. However, while always distinctly them, there are tangible signs of a band developing and refusing to rest on their laurels. Following his work remixing Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, Jamie Smith has brought more of a definite dance influence to Coexist. Towards the middle of the record, the beats occasionally threaten to move into rave territory, and Swept Away gradually builds into a dance track in which you can entirely lose yourself. It’s all relative though, this is still The xx, but their music is so intricately crafted that any deviations are immediately highlighted and amplified.

The most striking thing on Coexist is how Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft have grown into their voices. Neither are what you’d call a technically strong singer, but like the best vocalists, they make the most of what they have to impart great emotion and feeling. Like their music, the singing is unfussy and understated yet conveys so much. The aforementioned Angels is heartfelt and genuine; a touching paean to being in love (“Every day I am learning about you”) while Chained is warm and enveloping despite its theme (“We used to be closer than this – is it something you miss?”).

It’s these moments that make Coexist so special. The xx speak to everybody but on a disarmingly personal level and make you realise we’re not all so different after all. Despite their reticent, gloomy image, they’re also an exceptionally confident band. It takes real courage to let their music do the talking and lay their emotions bare in the way they do.

Elsewhere, there are moments of surprise. The oscillating introduction of Try sounds like something from a Weeknd mixtape until Sim’s vocals break through like a swimmer surfacing and breathing in for the first time. Reunion could be mistaken for a track from the previous album, until it begins to gradually unfold and steel drums are added to the mix. Coexist ends on Our Song, which contains backwards looping effects yet sounds almost triumphant.

It isn’t a perfect album, however. One or two tracks don’t particularly linger in the memory, even after repeated plays of the album, and perhaps there aren’t as many standout tracks as xx. That said, the music of The xx has a tendency to seep into your subconscious and only truly reveal itself months later, so it’s possible that this could be the case with Coexist’s least initially striking tracks too.

Overall, it’s a successful return, and a record that demonstrates the success of their debut wasn’t a fluke and that The xx truly are masters of musical alchemy. There’s enough experimentation and progress within to show the band still have the hunger, yet they haven’t betrayed their musical hallmarks. The xx remain a curio – selling records to the masses while providing each listener with a unique and personal experience.