The xx has always had that look and sound that recall UK’s particular era when pop was quintessentially new wave goth. Sophomore album Coexist pushes that comparison with the increasing melancholia of their music – however this is not music to slit your wrist to, it is the perfect soundtrack during an ennui-filled overcast day in London. Right after a bad breakup.
With second albums, artists would either completely abandon the formula they established on their debut or refine it to perfection. The xx has taken the latter route with Coexist, the vocals more elegiac, the instruments more sparse, and the sonic atmosphere even more drily gloomy. Opener ‘Angels’ is the perfect embodiment of the rest of Coexist’s theme and sound, with Romy channelling her best Sade (sans the vocal range) over Jamie’s simple beat programming and minimalistic yet soulful guitar plucking. Who knew being thematically as simple as mourning the idea of being in love could create one of the solemnest songs in recent years?
Then you continue on with the album and realise every track has the same vibe. Vocalists (and instrumentalists) Romy and Oliver seem to have mastered the act of droning wistful harmonies with such earnestness that you forgive what might have come off as a lack of enthusiasm. On ‘Chained’, their MO is made apparent. Unlike other bands where the vocals complement the instrumentation, it is the opposite here. The 2 voices are the driving force of their sound, accentuating the gaps of the empty sound of their instrumentations.
Due to Jamie’s excursion to dance as a solo act, many have speculated Coexist would have at least dabbled in dance a bit. But dance record this is not. Yet his foray into that genre has helped with the production, often time you’d expect the beat to drop (it never does) and the house influence becomes a tad apparent (never too obvious). There’s almost subversion in their refusal to try something new and insistence on refining what is established.
Topically, the group doesn’t stray far from what’s set on ‘Angels’. The lyrics are broad thoughts of the trials and tribulations of love. There might be some 17-year-old Tumblr macro image quality to the words – you can imagine a line (maybe “Did I see you see me in a new light?”) emblazoned on some sepia-toned picture of a beach or some sh!t. But these words are sung over morose beats with the perfect intonation, what is trite and general can become something else entirely with right execution. ‘Try’, ‘Reunion’, and ‘Sunset’ are the perfect trilogy of consecutive tracks that makes sense out of this claim. Seamlessly segueing to one another like a musical equivalent of Tran Anh Hung’s despondent films.
As potent as their choice to go broad is initially, the album does lose its efficacy towards the end. The perfect soundtrack to an ennui-filled overcast day is after all ennui-inducing in on itself. Coexist is still a strong sophomore though, filling the void where their debut left without ruining our expectations of the band. Innovation and formula can coexist.
LISTEN TO: ‘Chained’, ‘Angels’, ‘Try’, ‘Reunion’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: James Blake, Jamie xx, Beach House
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