After the release of their self-titled debut album, it became apparent that The xx was a very special band. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim pioneered the way for hushed, intimate pop vocals intertwining with sleek guitar riffs and synthetic beats. The band has little social media presence and rarely interacts extensively with their audience at shows, but in no way lacks a devoted fan base. In fact, perhaps because of their shy, humble demeanors, emotional young fans flock to the singers- and are never disappointed. Songs from the debut album expressed intense, subtle emotions about love and longing that we don’t always realize we experience so intensely until they are pointed out. The xx does that for us. So after almost three years without any new material, fans (and definitely me) were eager to find out what more The xx had to show us about our own deeply emotional existence.
Coexist is characterized by an even more stripped-down sound (no cross-over mainstream hits like “Crystalized“) and songs that go absolutely silent halfway through only to pick back up with a slightly different beat/tone/arrangement. The album tends to blend together at first because of the lack of any standout powerhouse songs, but is incredible after a few listens. Jamie‘s beats and Croft and Sim’s vocals flow and slide over each other, coexisting (see what I did there?) beautifully but never quite tainting one another by fully mixing, much like oil on water (the band chose the album artwork aptly). The band is clearly refining what they are best known for and good at- and while some may criticize them for not experimenting, I think it is a beautiful example of growth without exaggeration or overachieving.
The album opens with the first single “Angels.” A friend recently told me that he was disappointed in this song because it is just about Croft being in love and literally singing the highest praise for her lover. The xx typically sing about more subtle, generally unpleasant or unsettling emotions relating to love and longing- this seems like the most obvious (and honestly overdone) expression of emotion related to love. Though the most musically simple, this song takes time and context to appreciate and fully understand. Followed immediately by “Chained,” a beautiful piece in which Sim and Croft sing about a love that has lost its closeness, Croft croons “Did I hold you too tight?/ Did I not let enough light in?” She is wondering if the overpowering, all-posessing love she felt on “Angels” in fact pushed her partner away. This one devastating line, sang only twice, gives an entirely new melancholy meaning to the previous song.
Sim’s vocals shine on subsequent tracks such as “Friction,” “Try,” and specifically “Missing,” where the two singers trade softly humming a melody behind each other’s vocals- a beautiful practice almost entirely lacking on the first album, with the obvious exception of “Intro.” One of Jamie’s shining moments comes on the incredible “Reunion” in which Sim’s vocals rise out of a sophisticated steel drum beat that turns into a haunting backbone to Croft’s simple repeating vocals expressing the absolute devastation of a long awaited reunion going poorly.
The back half of the album has some brilliant gems- “Tides” opens with a gorgeous a capella duet followed by a trading of lines similar to “Stars” (my favorite from the previous album). A slightly heavier beat comes in, illustrating how dance and house music have informed, but not outright influenced The xx, continued on “Swept Away.”
One of the first noticeable differences between this album and the last is a shift toward more general, vague descriptions and phrases as opposed to specific, original examples of love and loss. “Sunset” perpetuates one of the most overdone themes- encountering an ex-lover, but does not express the emotions in any new way. Croft sings “I always thought it was sad/the way we act like strangers/after all that we had,” phrases that are probably written in every brooding young adult’s diary about a breakup, as opposed to the intimately-specific-but-still-relateable “watch things on VCR’s with me…/I think we’re superstars/you say you think we are the best thing” from the previous album. With the notable exception of “Unfold,” a song where the listener feels like she is hearing a deeply personal story about one relationship in particular, most of the songs on Coexist deal with typical xx subject matter in more general terms.
If you listen closely, it is easy to tell that the members of The xx write their songs pretty independently of each other. Croft and Sim’s lyrics, while expressing the same emotions and often very similar situations, never respond directly to what the other has just said. Instead of feeling like the two artists are in conversation with each other, it is as though they are completely separated, but thinking, feeling, and dealing with the same things. It can be a bit frustrating to the listener to not feel like they are learning anything from or helping one another. With the closing song on Coexist, Croft and Sim dismantle this perception in the most loving, cathartic way possible.
In what is perhaps the most beautiful testament to friendship I have ever heard, “Our Song” (written together by the artists) powerfully expresses the intimate (but never romantic) relationship between Croft and Sim. Sung in perfect unison, the two promise that no matter what, they will always take care of each other, even at times “when no one wants you.” Thus the album ends with a poignant expression of what I believe we all are searching for in relationships with other people- “The walls I hide behind/you walk through/you just walk through.”
The album is out now through Young Turks. Buy it, turn down the lights, hit play, and be ready to get lost in the flowing, ethereal beauty of The xx’s sophomore album.