The xx Take Risks, Succeed on Coexist

The band's much-anticipated sophomore album 'Coexist' debuts in the U.S. on Sept. 11

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It’s unlikely that anyone has The xx on their gym playlist. The band’s sound is hard-wired for melancholy—evoking images of the lovelorn staring out of a café window smoking cigarettes down to their filters. In their self-titled debut album, The xx wooed audiences with a desperately delicate sound that made loneliness an art form. It’s a medium the young British threesome continues to explore on their second album, Coexist, which debuts on September 11th.

The xx’s self-titled debut introduced that style of silence interlaced with brittle hooks, gorgeously building drones, and haunting lyrical interplay that simultaneously called to mind frozen Russian landscapes and smoke-stained Manchester nightclubs. The band’s lyrics about loneliness, lust and love won and lost, struck a chord with the moderately depressed around the world. Apparently that is a booming demographic, because the album went platinum. Billboard notes that while it has been on sale for 145 weeks, it has only fallen below 1,000 in weekly sales twice, which in an age of streaming and YouTube and piracy, is quite a feat. There’s a good reason it’s been in steady rotation for so long: It’s filled with beautiful tracks that deserve repeat listens like “VCR” and “Heart Skippped a Beat.”

Helping fuel the band’s rapid ascendance has been mass media’s seeming infatuation with their music: Their songs have been sampled by wildly popular artists like Rihanna, who add gravity to their own confectionary sounds by looping in The xx’s dark hooks, and featured on TV shows and in commercials. Additionally, their mesmerizing track “VCR” has been covered by stars as varied as The Antlers, Matthew Dear, Damon Albarn, Shakira, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The band’s percussionist/keyboardist and producer Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie XX) has gone on to work with both Gil-Scott Heron and Drake, further adding to the band’s image as talented professionals worth paying close attention to.

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In the span of a few years, The xx went from playing in front of hundreds to thousands and then tens of thousands with headlining gigs at All Tomorrow’s Parties, as well as prominent sets at Coachella and Bonnaroo. They also won Britain’s coveted Mercury Music Prize. Led by the singles “Angels” and “Chained,” people have been talking about The xx’s new album for months. Still, it’s clear all this hasn’t affected the group’s sound. Or if it has, it has seemingly isolated them more, as the album sounds as perfectly lonely as ever.

Just as on their debut, The xx makes copious use of empty space on the aptly titled Coexist, the silence playing as important a role in their music as Romy Madley-Croft’s guitar. Each sound, be it instrument or voice, is given ample room to exist and to soar. The sweetly smooth voice of Madley-Croft and the rough-around-the-edges whisper of Oliver Sim’s vocals live in separate worlds, occasionally overlapping, but never overrunning each other. The instruments played by Madley-Croft, Sim and keyboard/percussionist Jamie Smith exist almost wholly separately, but blended together masterfully by Smith, who mixed the album, so that when the vocals and instruments finally come together, the effect is strangely exhilarating.

In some ways, the album makes more sense when you find out that, according to Rolling Stone, the bandmates wrote the songs in isolation, even from each other. They reportedly wrote the songs individually, recording snippets on Garageband or their phones and emailing them back and forth. The final product was pieced together, then recorded, before the band learned how to play it live. The effect is a sparing cohesiveness that is wholly captivating.

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Their single “Chained” is a thrilling if somewhat taxing journey to ride the swells of Sim’s and Madley-Croft’s emotions. The bass line twists and thumps through the song like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. It sets off at a frenetic (for The xx) speed, setting the pace for the song, and the listener, much like Alice, can’t quite catch up, before the song crashes down into a well of silence. It’s a neat trick, but it’s risky, too. On “Missing” the sound disappears entirely for a beat or two, making listeners (or this one anyway) stare quizzically at the computer wondering if that was it. The song zooms back to life, but it’s a distracting moment—one that doesn’t quite work.

“Sunset” is the album’s most obviously danceable track. The percussiveness that the group has added to their repertoire is a welcome addition that shows that with Coexist the band is evolving beyond their black-clad world, while remaining wholly true to themselves.  “Fiction,” is another song that shows off their use of percussion throughout the album. If the track’s bass-and-drum lines were cranked up, you could have the beat to a Deadmau5 song. The xx also doesn’t shy away from the unexpected musical addition to their sparsely moody sound. For example, in “Reunion,” a steel drum of all things plays a starring role in helping construct the atmosphere, its steely sound an unusual harbinger of emptiness when placed into The xx’s grey world.

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Overall, on Coexist The xx takes daring risks in their use of percussion, silence, and dueling vocals—for the most part successfully. But despite the slow crescendos of Sim’s and Madley-Croft’s call and repeat, they don’t drag things out. There are no seven or eight minute navel-gazing tracks on the album. The longest track “Swept Away,” which clocks in at 5:01, is arguably one of the album’s best because there is more time to draw the listener in, to create atmosphere for the listener to exist in, before peaking and then ebbing. It’s a chance for listeners to revel in The xx’s world for a bit longer, which is self-indulgent, but also blissful.

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