Online music marketing experts will tell you that in today's hyper-connected world the best way to build a devoted fan base is to engage with your listeners as much as possible. With all the various mediums for interaction the logic goes that once your fans realize what an approachable and fun-loving person you are they will be more likely to become an avid listener. It's sound advice, but artists that follow it must feel a little disheartened when a band like The xx comes along. Indeed, within months of their debut The xx, a group of shy londoners who only wore black and seemingly had no interest in having people devoted to them, had entranced thousands of brooding indie fans. People were endlessly intrigued by this insular group that wrote deeply personal lyrics and crafted sleek, soulful songs about love (and often lovemaking). Their debut, xx, had something undeniably unique – the duet singing structure, the blending of R&B and rock textures, the production style. It was an album hinged on the kind of distinctiveness that makes racking up twitter followers seem like a waste of time.
Three years later The xx are still introverts and they still make striking music. Their new album, Coexist, finds the trio refining their sound – slowly peeling away layers until the heart of the song is exposed. The minimalism that showed up intermittently on their debut is one of the defining aspects of Coexist. Most songs feel skeletal, with nothing more than guitar, bass, and restrained percussion. Of course, this instrumental sparseness leaves space for the voices of Madley Croft and Sim to sprawl out in the way they were meant to be heard. Their lyrical interplay is the core of the band's emotional energy and thus by magnifying their words Coexist is made all the more heartbreaking. Ultimately, it is an album less about variety than it is about depth. Each track is sonically cavernous and multiple listens in a quiet dark room are required for full effect. If you've never listened to music that way The xx may not be your style. But for those that do, listening to Coexist will prove to be a haunting and captivating experience.
“Angels,” the first track on the album, was reportedly the most difficult song for the band to record, which is odd given that, on paper, it is the simplest song on the album. It's Madley Croft's voice, a languid guitar riff, and sporadic drum crescendos. But it makes perfect sense when you consider how the song would have been constructed. Madley Croft likely wrote and demoed the song, only then sending it to the other members. Crafting the final product then became not so much about making the song more interesting but about maintaining something fundamental while still incorporating the rest of the band. “Angels” is Madley Croft's story of intense, all-consuming love; in this sense, it is understandable that the band would go to great lengths to try and be faithful to the emotional core of the song. In fact, all of Coexist seems to have been approached from this angle. Instead of looking to express themselves in new, exciting ways they simply honed in on and attempted to faithfully recreate the things they have always felt.
The album's second song, “Chained,” is more indicative of the rest of Coexist, as it showcases all three members in peak form. Sim's velvety voice makes a grand entrance into the arrangement and one can't help but notice that he has matured as a singer. There is a seductiveness to his croon, a kind of eery yet comforting allure. Paired with Madley Croft the duo make for one of the most engrossing vocal pairs of the last few years. To go along with that, Jamie xx hovers silently in the background, sculpting deep drum rhythms and sophisticated synth patches. The tone of “Chained” is altered when the drums kick in mid-measure and only slowly work their way into the rhythm of the song. It's something you would find on a Nicolass Jarr or a Burial track and it is the first glimpse of the influence dance music has had on Coexist's sound. Once all together, the song's elements form a beautiful harmony; particularly as Madley Croft and Sim mirror the song's chord changes with their voices. The song would be perfect if not for its abrupt ending. It seemed like it had so much more to say but was unnecessarily stopped in mid-sentence.
As the rest of the album unfolds, there are a number of moments of striking beauty and a general pattern of quality songwriting. “Reunion” opens with Sim channeling Stuart Staples with his vocals and Jamie xx dabbling with a steel drum. Given no other information you should now want to listen to the song but, in the extremely unlikely event that you are not convinced, the latter part of the track morphs into a gorgeous, I-feel-like-I-am descending-into-a-cave style breakdown. “Sunset” and “Swept Away” are something like the The xx's take on house music. However, the way house has been molested over the last decade, note that these songs draw on what originally made house so interesting – bass sounds that comfort as well as energize, dramatic R&B style vocals, and a distinct sense that it comes straight from the heart. “Tides” is one of the albums more adorned tracks, as bass layers build upon one another and violins make a heart wrenching appearance. The drums are oddly straightforward but it makes for nice moment of simple, infectious pop.
“Our Song,” the final track on the album, is lovely in its own right but it is even more potent when the backstory is understood. On every other song on the album Madley Croft and Sim sing on the same track but it doesn't seem as if they are singing together. Rather, they are two independent people telling their own overlapping stories. They are in their own homes, hundreds of miles away from each other, looking out the window and somehow thinking about the same thing. This dynamic works to great effect, but it was abandoned for “Our Song.” The two founders wrote the song together and wrote it in traditional duet fashion, as one person singing to another. In unison they sing “in dark times when no one wants to/ I will give you me/ and we'll be us.” Madley Croft and Sim's relationship, while not romantic, has nevertheless shaped what The xx has become. “Our Song” sounds like the two friends acknowledging and giving thanks for that fact, and it is a special moment for the listener to be a part of.
The xx are a study in contrast. At their live shows the crowd belts out the lyrics to songs that are deeply personal and often evoke isolation. The band dresses in all black yet they are one of the most emotionally forthright groups making music. Most importantly, the instrumental arrangements evoke images of dark expanses of water yet the lyrics feel like they should be whispered in your ear. This unique interplay forms the core of Coexist, an album that represents a subtle but potent evolution of The xx's sound. What could have been an overly ambitious sophomore effort is instead a concise, novella of an album that makes a deep impression and leaves a mark as it drifts away. [A-]