The xx, a London-based trio best known for its ethereal and emotionally charged love songs made waves back in 2009 with their self-titled release off the Young Turks label. Right out of the gate, The xx established itself in the music scene with an instantly recognizable sound that capitalized on minimalism.
Three years later, The xx return a little older, a little wiser and ready to face the difficult challenge of coming out with a second album: what to do next?
The band’s new album Coexist, released Tuesday, is a statement of growth for the young trio. With its first album, The xx set a foundation of emotionally oozing pop songs, such as the profound and catchy tracks “Crystalised” and “Heart Skipped a Beat.” But Coexist strips away the unnecessary bells and whistles, leaving a pure sound reveling in lonely guitar riffs, the pattering of a steel drum and the hushed exclamations of love and longing.
Singers Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, childhood friends turned bandmates, evolved their songwriting, using real-life experiences to charge their songs with a more straightforward expression of emotion. Percussionist-producer Jamie xx’s beats have evolved as well to incorporate more dance vibes as the backbone to each song.
After the hype of the first album, The xx returned to London to look for new influences. Jamie Smith began crafting his unique beats as a solo project under the moniker Jamie xx. His solo DJ career has found its way into the new album and is very present in the pulsating beats of “Sunset,” “Swept Away” and “Reunion.”
Jamie xx’s contribution to Coexist is prominent; it is his crafting of the beats that perfectly complements the slow wails of guitar and fills pockets of silence with an understated yet captivating pulse that draws you in to each song.
The pangs of Jamie xx’s steel drum in “Reunion” transcends the slow longing of Madley-Croft’s and Sim’s voices, transforming the song from the simple ache of two long lost lovers to a dance-centric track.
The song begins with saddened proclamations of estranged love. Madley-Croft sings, “Did I, see you, see me / in a new light?” Cue Jamie xx. The beat swells. And you strangely find yourself dancing to The xx — a rare occasion, but one that points to the evolution of their sound.
The xx was once largely defined by its valuing of silence as much as their use of sound. Now, that minimalism seems only to be a starting point.
The track “Missing” begins with soft percussions mimicking that of a heartbeat and a faint guitar line, as Sim drones “my heart is beating in a different way.” Then a three second pause.
But suddenly Madley-Croft’s guitar arrives wailing. The percussion picks up, and Sim’s voice booms. Then a role reversal occurs as Sim and Madley-Croft each pick up verses where the other left off: Madley-Croft sings, Sim echoes. The singers never meet to directly duet — rather, they chase each other through the verses.
The album is also a testament to Sim’s growing confidence as a vocalist. “Fiction,” Sim’s first official solo, exemplifies the comfort his voice accumulated from extensive shows and touring. Here, Sim confesses romantic illusions against a tightly wound drum accompaniment. Sim is pushing his comfort zone as he experiments with his range, making “Fiction” one of the album’s most outstanding tracks.
On first listen, Coexist fails to deliver the can’t-get-out-of-your-head tunes of The xx’s previous album, which included songs such as “Basic Space” and “Islands.” “Angels,” the first single off the new album, simply comes and goes: Madley-Croft quietly yearns with nothing more than a liquid guitar line.
But listen again, and the intricacies of an evolved sound begin to win you over; Jamie’s stimulating beat grows more prominent, providing a solid foundation to each song while Sim’s voice and lyrical musings resonate a little stronger.
Coexist solidifies The xx’s uniquely hypnotic sound with programmed drums and ethereal guitar riffs. Though this album might take a bit longer to win you over, it demands attention all the same.
For past and future fans of The xx, Coexist will separate the wheat from the chaff. Given time, Coexist has the potential to endear you, as the songs grow more memorable as you listen.
And who knows? It could even be the soundtrack to your next breakup.