Bands who make it big straight away —when they're still young, without having suffered through the trials and tribulations that're the familiar lot of most musicians' early years— almost always fare worse for the experience. They may grow insufferably arrogant, paralyzed by outside perceptions, or hopeless careerists; hell, they could become all three. But the music almost always suffers, and all those things that listeners actually loved about their debut are usually the first things that vanish.
The xx were all but 19 years old when their debut LP, xx, was released; the London outfit a crew of shy kids barely out of high-school. Few —least of all the band themselves— could've ever guessed that their soft, spartan, whisper-quiet confessionals would hit it big. But big they did become: xx went Platinum in the UK, Gold in Australia; they won the Mercury Music Prize; they were sampled by Rihanna, covered by Gorillaz, and played in soccer stadiums during the Euro 2012 tournament. The band's beatmaker, Jamie Smith, became a remixer-for-the-stars and superstar DJ. Fame was theirs for the taking. And a bigger, bolder, beatsier, more radio-ready, more outdoor-festival-friendly second LP was surely the ticket.
Gladly, Coexist is the sound of a band staying true to themselves, standing defiant against the dangers of those for whom success comes quick. Smith may've claimed that a "club influence" would linger on the album, but Coexist is a work of preservationist minimalism; the sound of a band refusing the easy excess of digital multi-tracking, and keeping far from modern pop's tendency towards the overproduced and overwrought.
The xx's arrangements are, in many ways, exercises in just how few component parts a song needs to function: a dangling guitar here, a pulsing bassline there; a beat briefly flickering, skipping into still-dawdling double-time before vanishing; vocals exhaled over the top in breathy whispers, liked hushed confessions in a darkened room. It's a sound in which space is the central, defining element, and a sound all their own.
Comparisons for The xx are always a little off; old '80s names like Young Marble Giants (for the formalist minimalism) and This Mortal Coil (for the atmospheric ambience) completely denying the profound influence of 21st century R&B on the band. Thinking of them as part of an English lineage that includes Everything But the Girl, Massive Attack, and Tricky may make more sense —especially when bassist Oliver Sim and guitarist Romy Madley Croft swap murmurs like some modern-day Tricky/Martina— but that thick fug of Bristol's trip-hop stands at sonic opposites to The xx's sleek, spacious, architectural sound.
The xx remind me, more, of barely-remembered '90s post-rockers Rothko, whose band name tipped their hat towards reductionist minimalism. Their initial core lineup was three bassplayers, but silence was their central element, and every sound was used sparingly. Here, there's a similar spirit to the way The xx mete out sounds; a considered thought behind every beat, with each note needing to justify its existence.
This meticulous minimalism would be so much studio eggheadism were it not in service of an emotional tenor; plotting the landscape of on-again/off-again relationships in their sudden plunges into silence, and their tender, gentle vocals. Coexist's title embodies these relationship themes; and the album begins, with first single "Angels," in those first pledges of devotion. "I think I'm ready/as long as you're with me," Croft sings, "being as in love with you as I am."
There's waxing and waning in the songs whose titles summon the turning planet: "Tides" about the come-and-go ("I can see it in your eyes/some things have lost their meaning"); "Sunset" finding a sense of past-tense creeping in ("you were more than just a friend to me"). Though Sim and Croft trade lines back-and-forth, sometimes sing together, and share constant co-writing credits; his words feel a little more burnt by love, hers a little more hopeful.
"I'll give you me/and we'll be us," Croft sings, in a closer called "Our Song," no less. After the indecision and time-apart and unsure feelings that've come throughout, the closer is firm in its commitment to coexistence. It marks a mature statement from a young band; The xx belying their youth as they display uncommon thoughtfulness and maturity lyrically, musically, and in the context of their career.
Record Label: Young Turks
Release Date: September 11, 2012