Let’s address this right off the bat – I like The xx a lot, and that’s going to color my review. And though I’m certainly not alone in my affection, I typically don’t like playing the “I was a fan back when” cards. To whit – I raved about the trio’s debut LP in 2009, but it wasn’t until seeing Romy, Oliver, and Jamie play twice at SXSW 2010 did I fully grasp their vaunted minimalist aesthetic. As with most follow-ups to a well-received entrance, there is a great, nearly overwhelming level of hype surrounding Coexist; so, it’s understandable that a bit of backlash has been foisted upon a band with only one proper release and 3 years of nearly universal critical acclaim.
Whatever. I’ve never been the sort of music fan or critic who thinks that everyone should agree with my particular tastes and proclivities, so I certainly won’t denounce folks who don’t dig the icy, sparse landscapes that this group crafts with such meticulous care. Suffice to say, if you didn’t like the debut, you certainly won’t enjoy this one – as other reviews of the album have dutifully noted, Coexist takes all of the strengths from xx and “doubles down” on their sonic impact.
This approach definitely leaves lots of space in the mix and the arrangements, but it certainly doesn’t leave much (if any) room for error. Luckily, there are very few missteps to be heard, and this definitely isn’t a sophomore slump. Though, as the Pitchfork review of the record mentioned obliquely, you’re kinda left wondering how the band can extend these sounds (or the lack thereof) into a third album without coming across as some sort of exercise in a graduate-level course on Philip Glass and John Cage.
Nevertheless, the eleven songs that comprise the record are sleek and restrained, but they’re most assuredly not dim or cowering. Romy and Oliver’s vocals take center-stage as never before – you get the feeling that the two of them are sitting in their respective bedrooms penning lovelorn lyrics back-and-forth to each other. These romantic overtones are balanced by the airy atmospherics, and there’s this curious warmth to the distances between the vocals, guitar licks, and supple swathes of effects.
As opposed to his lauded DJ sets that blend head-bobbing house, bass, and hip-hop to majestic effect, Jamie takes a step back to engage in some stark musical alchemy. Along with occasional strains of the steel drum from his “Far Nearer” solo single, the music oozes with the creepy stutter-step beats of Burial, insular ambience of Kode 9, and tempo-blurring post-dubstep of James Blake. This is seriously spectral stuff, and he helms the project deftly, serving as a complementary bandmate first, producer second, and up-and-coming beatmaker a distant third.
Coexist represents bare-bones melancholia at its finest – melodramatic hysterics need not apply. The middle third of the record is without doubt the best material, as “Reunion,” “Sunset,” and “Missing” hearken to the pop roots heard on xx (think “Islands,” “Basic Space,” etc.), but the envelope is pushed in a darker, more austere direction. I also enjoy the angelic tones of “Chained,” “Fiction,” and “Swept Away,” though the songs are more appropriate for the angels in a Doctor Who episode, as opposed to some white-robed gospel incantation. Ultimately, I think this album will be much more divisive that the debut could have ever hoped to be, but I also believe that’s a testament to the talent and artistic integrity of The xx. If they had attempted to make a follow-up just to please casual/new fans, critics, naysayers, radio DJ’s, and A&R people, it probably wouldn’t have been made.