Album Review: The xx – Coexist

[Young Turks; 2012]

It’s been three years since The xx’s eponymous debut. It’s a significant portion of time for a group that seems so involved with the emotional repercussions of age and maturity. On xx, singers Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim were reciting lines they’d been writing since they were fifteen. Lines about love, sex, and relationships, delivered in a kind of abstracted back-and-forth, male/female perspective that’s come to define who The xx are as a band as much as their mixture of dank R&B, slinky post-punk, and after-dark electronics. The group has remarked on fan anecdotes about how meaningful and important xx became as a kind of budding lovers soundtrack, which, even for the group, is where the album remains.

It’s been made clear by the band that they look back on their debut as much a product of a specific era of their lives as listeners might have seen xx vividly reflecting their first steps into the worlds of romance and sex. “This time, I was working off actually having experiences and I found myself being a lot less ‘moons and stars’ and being a lot more literal.” That’s Oliver Sim in a recent interview, commenting on the difference in lyrical approaches between xx and the trio’s sophomore followup Coexist. It’s hard for many not to feel like their teenage years are a self-contained encapsulation — a life lead by a different more naive, more hopeful, and more simplistic person all together. “Moons and stars” might be the best and most honest way to capture those adolescent views. But as The xx’s sophomore release is evidence to, romance is just as vital as ever and with three more years added to the trudge into adulthood, the group’s perspective has deepened and complicated.

Coexist‘s themes hinge less on the ideal than they do on specifics. The album even has a feint traceable narrative arc at work. The group have taken their dueling vocal perspectives and built the entire record around it. On xx Medley-Croft and Sim seemed to embody feint outlines of male and female absolutes, detailing archetypical distillations of love and lust, which played in its favor. There’s something to be said for capturing deep yearnings with simple language, which The xx’s debut very much did. Coexist, instead, charts the back-and-forth complexities of a fractured relationship that, at it’s most effective (“Reunion,” “Missing”) resonantly explores a wilderness of residual feelings left over after said relationship has collapsed. The language remains as zero-frills as ever, addressing emotions, bodily imagery, and sensory detail fairly directly, but Coexist is somehow even more intimate and resounding than the trio’s debut.

Producer/electronics dude, Jamie xx has a great deal to do with that. I’ll be honest, it took more than a couple listens to warm up to Coexist‘s sparse, disjointed style. Reductively, Coexist almost functions like a whole album of “Fantasy”s. There is no “VCR” or “Heart Skipped A Beat” or any obvious singles on Coexist and the group’s signatory bass and staccato guitar interplay has taken a back seat to ambiance and more subverted London dance music structures. Jamie xx disperses the songs with subtle off-kilter flourishes: silences and empty spaces that hang for just a second too long, unrequited buildups, anti-climaxes, constant start-stops, unexpected right turns, and delicate sonic embellishments.

On “Chained” Medley-Croft’s guitar appears for all of ten seconds, building and building before it’s gently snuffed out like a few dashed hopes. “Fiction” stops on a dime more than once to let some guitar plucks sound alone before the heaving beat overtakes it again. “Reunion” threatens to blowup out of some sticky steel drum samples but instead collapses into a wash of widescreen synths while a tumultuous bass synth bellows like a quick rush of heated, heart-stricken adrenaline before it’s gone again. And “Missing” is a marvel of abstracted songcraft, slowing things to an aching, bobbing pace and filling a gust of negative space with alternating backing and lead vocals over barren, heartbreaking stretches of ambiance.

Coexist is a jarring listen the first couple times through, especially if you’re expecting another xx, but it becomes clear Jamie xx and company are trying to trace the emotional pathways cut by the two vocalists. It’s not long until that intermittent, throbbing stillness on “Sunset” or the weightless, beat-less organ part on “Missing” or the halting “ohh”s on “Unfold” become eagerly anticipated moments. It’s an album full of vivid in-between instances and restrained, zigzagging flashes of beauty. The group is using many of the same tools found on xx, but applying them to a very different effect. The end result is a quieted, more suppressed record that steps delicately from one note to the next and shines even more of a spotlight on the twin vocal sentiments of longing and crumbled romance. It’s an unexpected direction for a sophomore release and shows The xx have matured musically as much as they have lyrically.