It’s been three years since The XX took the world by storm with their debut XX and now the London trio are back with follow up Coexist. With their debut the black clad ambience topped more lists than you could legitimately create in a year, but after a seeming never ending onslaught of the XX brand (Jamie xx) they largely disappeared. Still, this record has a lot riding on it and will, if their streaming campaign is anything to go by, once again see the Mercury Music Prize winners rule the airwaves. So, yeah, prepare to once more embrace your miserable side. It’s just like that time Morrissey got his hands on some steel drums…wait.
The 11 tracks here are much the same as what you’ve come to expect from The XX, they’re ambitious, ambivalent, post-everything, insular songs. The vocal duets between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are as achingly heart stopping as ever and the beats from Jamie xx (formerly Smith) are just as deep and naturally guttural as you could wish them to be. But this somehow doesn’t feel like it should. XX felt new, fresh, and almost dangerous in its mainstream success, this…doesn’t. Yeah, it’s great and first single ‘Angels’ will leave you a quivering mess listening to Radio 1; for different reasons to usual, but they’ve done this before and we know they do it well, I guess I just wanted to see what else they could do. Which isn’t to say they haven’t grown, they have, this is in many ways a far greater record than their debut, it just takes a couple of listens before you fall, but don’t take these words lightly when I say you will fall hard.
XX was a pop record, a new kind of pop record, but a pop record, this is not a pop record, it’s also not a post-dub record, but something somewhere in the spaces between. ‘Chained’ is a sharp brew of a song whereby Croft’s razor wire guitar severs the tension, a motif that runs throughout the record and indeed the bands catalogue. They’re quite simply pretty, which isn’t something people usually call the guitar, but these guys craft their songs with aural pleasure in mind. Largely thanks to Jamie’s beats that is something they accomplish time and again here. It’s darker and tighter than before, the oceanic drones on ‘Try’ don’t wash over you, but pull you in like a rip-tide. In a completely none coincidental twist of fate ‘Tides’ is one of the finest tracks on show here. From its bleak subject matter to its lonely strum of guitar and singular drum beat it is one hell of a subtle track and all the better for it. Strings rise in the background as the dual vocals flow at odds with the isolation of it all and then it slowly ebbs away, it’s like looking at faded tracks in the sand.
Everything here is just that little bit stronger than before and a track such as ‘Reunion’ screams that at you and it’s not just because it uses steel drums (okay so it is, whatever), but because it truly opens you up to what The XX do. They use silence just as much as sound. Just think about that for a minute. Yeah, they’re not the first people to do it, so what, they’re the first people to do it with such a platform and John Cage would be a fucking fan I’m sure. Once you notice you can’t stop thinking about how amazingly they incorporate silence and these are suddenly some of the most spacious tracks around. ‘Sunsets’ is a fine example as Sim’s bass funk stops and starts between snare hits and precisely programmed fillers, even the vocals come with an emotionally stunted timbre: “I always thought it was a shame that we have to play these games, it felt like you really knew me, now it’s like you see through me.”
A lot of the tracks here like ‘Missing’ are stark and desolate in sound and subject matter, it’s a separation of individuals, a difficult realisation, and sometimes it can come across a little cold in its delivery, the sudden influx of a clubbier sound in the more melancholy ‘Swept Away’ is at first jarring. They always win you round, but it’s just these little things that niggle when you expect perfection. Like some of the lyrics which are frankly slightly insipid: “I know your heart, I want to mend your heart,” it’s this same quality which has meant they’ve made a startling record without any ‘songs’ you know the ones I mean, there’s no ‘Crystalised’ or ‘Islands’ here. It’s great having a great record, but when you’re The XX you need that great single and even ‘Angels’ doesn’t have that same replayable quality, it just happens to be the poppiest song on the record.
Coexist is one that will split the fans and possibly retract some of the mainstream attention from The XX, but if you give it time you’ll figure out what it is that you love about this album and discover a whole new realm of musical ambivalence along with it.
Coexist is out now on Young Turks