The xx 'Coexist'
It can be a very dangerous game, setting the bar as highly as The xx did on their remarkable self-titled debut.
The pages of history are blotted with tales of bands who explode into prominence right from the get-go, only for ashen follow-ups and hurried, thoughtless releases to deplete their stocks until the legacy is no more than a wisp of nostalgia. It’s the toughest of conundrums – how to improve upon a record that was so widely celebrated as a sweeping triumph? – and, with the burden of expectation weighing heavy here, something of an elephant in The xx’s dimly lit bedroom. Coexist sees Jamie Smith, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft respond to that question with typically hushed and elegant panache; by gently caressing all of the touchstones that made xx such a beguiling collection of songs, but with the sort of deft, developmental foresight that ensures this release is as alluring as its renowned ancestor.
Indeed, the band themselves have been widely quoted in the lead up to the release of Coexist as alluding to what was a curious evolution for the group. Production wunderkind, Smith, went so far as to suggest that these songs might be slightly more suited to the club than the cloistered, intimate spaces that xx inhabited, with the writing process having been apparently more heavily influenced by electronic music this time around; “We all got off tour and had been partying a bit more. We missed out on that chunk of our lives when everyone else was partying, so club music definitely had more of an influence.” While that sort of claim rings true at times, in reference to certain facets of the material offered on Coexist, this is still very recognisably The xx.
There are still the same skeletal song structures and ghostly melodies. Those glossy, crystalline guitar tones still glide effortlessly through the breathy vapour. The material still invokes that special breed of seductive melancholy - warmly cathartic, so comfortable and satisfying to wallow in. Every track is still draped in the confessional, bare-boned honesty of Sim and Madley-Croft. But it seems there’s a little bit more meat on those bones now, in every sense; the writing more focused, that wraithlike sound just a little bit more realised, the lusty yearning somehow smouldering even hotter.
The band’s subtle transformation is perhaps most obvious in the additional instrumentation they've introduced to their repertoire. While much of the material on xx adhered to a minimalist aesthetic, Coexist draws on the colourful tambre of a wider spectrum of sounds and styles. For one, the expansive chasms of silence and sparsity that were utilised so powerfully on xx have been reined in somewhat, often punctured and perforated by the clanking boom-bap productions of Smith. This in itself is notable, with the producer’s thumps and clucks having previously acted as little more than the heartbeat metronome to which Sim and Madley-Croft regulated their ever-entwining vocal lines.
Now, grittier percussion lines add a greater sense of urgency and depth. On both ‘Reunion’ and ‘Try’ for example, Smith’s bass drums billow out into vast mists of reverb, creating the necessary space for those lithe harmonies to slow dance, but with muted metallic clamours swooping to clash somewhere in the background. But there’s more to his recently enhanced arsenal than just a new set of drums. There’s the jangling pianet he conjures from beneath the depths of the latter stages of ‘Fiction’; the spectral calypso tinge of washed-out steel pans that rinse throughout ‘Reunion’; the warbling synthesized trill of ‘Try’; the taut orchestral arrangements of ‘Tides’. Cluttered though they may seem on paper, Smith’s wizardry behind the boards means these newfound elements all slide organically into the reverb, swimming around in perfect harmony with the languid layers of bass and guitar that fans will be expecting. And that "xx sound" is so much richer for it.
But despite their expansion of instrumental textures – as ever – The xx remain most notable for the way that they pluck and tug at the heartstrings, with reflections on relationship failures, loneliness and the pains of unreciprocated desire floating achingly above the gorgeous productions. "Maybe tonight I could stop dreaming and start believing in forever and ever again" pleads Madley-Croft in one instance. "Reunion?" responds her male counterpart, coldly, "Never. Not ever again". Elsewhere, on ‘Sunset’; "I always thought it was sad, the way we act like strangers / I felt like you really knew me. Now it feels like you see through me". Universal truths all of them, delicately posited by Sim and Madley-Croft so as to resonate as candid admissions, but relatable enough to be appropriated into the wistful reflections of any and every fan.
That’s why this strikes as such a worthwhile album, and why The xx strike as such an important band. These aren’t so much songs as they are emotional blank canvases, begging for memories – of people, places, love, lust, hurt and heartbreak – to be projected upon them, to be enmeshed within them. This isn’t the sort of material that will be wantonly consumed and cast aside with last month’s trends. Coexist, if you let it, is one of those rare albums that seems capable of doing exactly that: burying itself deep within the heart, and remaining an important passenger for a long time to come.