“Did I hold too tight?” asks Romy Madley-Croft on “Unchained,” from the xx’s Coexist. “Did I not let enough light in?”
It’s a pair of questions that seems so empty without context–context that’s unlikely to be given by the three Brits behind the lines. Since releasing their self-titled debut in 2009, the xx have made a living by skimping on context, enduring on a minimalist aesthetic that is equal parts negative space as it is outright obscurity. In that sense, Madley-Croft’s two-lined inquiry, the fulcrum of the band’s sophomore album, becomes a tongue-in-cheek reality check for a band that has thrived in the shadows of mystery.
Coexist coaxes the xx out of their preferred darkness, burning the proverbial spotlight on the pasty trio from South London. Their first release in three years, the 11-song LP–easily one of the most anticipated albums of 2012–comes with the standard questions and lofty expectations of any sequel. For Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith, however, Coexist is a time for reflection from a band whose rise surprised everyone but them. Sultry, enigmatic and dressed in all black, the xx seduced the world in 2009, taking trite topics of sex and nostalgia on their debut LP and turning them into deeper deliberations that struck at the heartstrings of lovers in the dark. But even for the xx the honeymoon could only last so long.
If xx was the first date, Coexist is the two-and-a-half years later–the struggle to understand that the person you wake up next to everyday is the one you fell for at first glance. It’s the break up–albeit handled with the band’s defining blasé coolness and no-frills approach.
As a package, Coexist maintains similarities to its predecessor, which is seemingly identical in length (11 songs, clocking in at around 38 minutes), and album art. In subject matter, however, the two are vastly different. Whereas Madley-Croft on xx standout “Shelter” sang of sex as a remedy (“Maybe I had said/ Something that was wrong/ Can I make it better/ With the lights turned on”), her rhetorical questions on “Chained” turn the light imagery upside down as an ex-lover searches for why it all fell apart. The excellent “Sunset” follows a similar path, though with a more resigned tone. Classic xx in composition with muffled drum machine throbs and three prolonged thumbings that switch from Madley-Croft’s guitar to Sim’s bass, the pair trade off passive-aggressive barbs from the fifth and final stage of the grieving process.
In three years, good friends Madley-Croft and Sim have gone on to further their song-performing relationship. Exhibiting a chemistry that reminds of Stars’ Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, the xx front two exhibit a maturity that has allowed them to go from playing teenage lovers between the sheets on their debut to embattled exes on Coexist. The pair sing together on all but two of the tracks, coming together on particularly moving refrains that seem straight from any blues crooner’s playbook. Take “Unfold” for example: “Out of sight out of mind/ Doesn’t mean you’re not mine/ The feeling goes on and on and on.”
On tracks where each is left alone to sing, the final result seems lacking. “Angels”–ironically one of the few love songs on the album–features just the female half of the vocal pair singing beautifully over a hypnotic guitar and actual snares. Without Sim though, the track misses, a feeling that is further emphasized by the expectation of a breakdown that never comes. Sim’s lone venture on “Fiction” is more rewarding, though likely more because of flowing lyrics and the return of light imagery (“I wake up alone with daylight between us”), than his serrated voice. (If you can’t get enough of Sim’s vocals, you can also try out his pseudo-tribal chants on “Missing.”)
While Coexist doesn’t seem to diverge instrumentally from its older sister–bass, seamless guitar and contrasting silence come aplenty–production is amped up a notch. Beat man Smith has absorbed a great deal in his solo stint as Jamie XX, taking the time he spent working on his own album and with the likes of Gil Scott-Heron into the studio. Dance floor-influenced “Reunion” flits in steel drum samples that don’t feel out of place, before dropping a beat halfway through that will bob heads and shift feet–two reactions not to be expected from any xx offering. Extended jam “Swept Away” mixes in polyrhythmic tempos that would seem foreign on xx before Smith slips in piano for good measure.
When the xx’s newfound gifts and past strengths come together, we’re reminded of the trio’s power in full flight. On “Tides,” Sim and Madley-Croft open with a naked duet, before being joined by echoing high hat samples that mimic the ebbs and flows of the sea. Riffing a Antics-ages Interpol bass line, the pair engage in a stop-and-go lyrical repetition that builds to the point of delusion before washing away.
If the motivation for Coexist is pain, it seems odd for the album to conclude with “Our Song.” Directly addressing each other on the track, Sim and Croft forego all the fuck off pleasantries and painful longings and revert to a feeling so prevalent on xx. “You broke down/ Why don’t you tell me from the start/ I know your heart/ I want to mend your heart,” they sing, seeming to forget the misery of songs prior. It’s not exactly a fitting resolve, but for those that will spend 38 minutes laying on their backs by themselves in the dark with their headphones on it’s a start–the sliver of light emanating from underneath that closed door.