The xx's self-titled debut a couple of years ago was, in a word, exciting. Their sound explored new levels of sparsity and the vocals were almost lethargic in tone, but it was exciting. It was the cutting edge of mellow, employing a dark, high style to create a modern classic in cool melancholy. When it turned out Jamie xx was some kind of production genius, as evidenced by his hot-as-shit remixes of Gil-Scott Heron and Adele, they suddenly became part of today's upper tier. Forthcoming sea changers like The Weeknd took note of their night music and incorporated it into their own work. All this, and they hadn't even put out a sophomore album.
To promote the lead-up to their next album and show off a bit of the creative process, the xx did a smart thing in creating a Tumblr (or "soundboard"). The xx, whether they mean to or not, has a great brand and mythology. There's a specific look and atmosphere to what they do. It was sealed with that fantastic music video for "Islands". The Tumblr was curated with somber polaroids, the dark rainbows of oil in water, various images of static — all of it in service of building the atmosphere and mood of the album before we even heard a note. It was a herald of things to come.
It's also risky. Anticipation stacked high, because you can't just let people in like that and then deliver a lackluster album. The singles hinted at something scaled back and somehow even sparser, and now that COEXIST is making it's way 'round the net, the full scope of the retreat is apparent. This is not only an album that utilizes the power of silence more than its predecessor, this is an album that puts urgency in the attic.
Stereogum called it boring and beautiful, and that's not an unreasonable initial assessment. My friend said of the song "Angels," "There's nothing interesting going on," and that's hard to refute. But this is a band that was unique because they of the mileage they could get out of silence. They've doubled down on this, maybe at the cost of everything else. The more I listen to it -- closely -- the more I discover underneath the surface. A lot of people will want this album to be just like their debut, times two. They'll be disappointed, but there's goodness here, just not in hooks or beats. The value is in their other wheelhouse of atmosphere and mood. In COEXIST we look at the heart- heavy, well-charted ground of the breakup through their darkened, intoxicated eyes, and that has gems all its own.
After a few listens, I found out this was a headphones-required albums which, depending on your preferences, is either a detriment or bonus. On a song like "Angels", not only do you need headphones, you need a near silent environment to really feel the tumble of drums that come in and dissipate just as quickly. On "Chained", the underlying synth glimmer is sub-ambient noise until it's right up next to your head. It's not ideal. It's not driving music, or even daylight music. For those willing to grapple with this access and submerge themselves in its depths, COEXIST will be powerful.
And everyday I'm learning about you
the things no one else sees
and the end comes too soon, like dreaming of angels
and leaving without them.
That particular verse, as well as the hook of "being as in love with you as I am" is a little foreign at first. While xx has been known to mine the heart, they never struck me as the kind of band that bought into blind or whole love. Their classic break out song "Islands" was remarkable largely in part because it didn't give you the satisfaction of a full-stop love song. There was an air of tragedy the way Romy sings, "I am yours, now / So now I don't ever have to leave / I've been found out / so now I'll never explore." It was the feeling of sadness during celebration, of empty victories, of getting what you want but not really. There is nothing as complicated on Coexist, and I think that's going to turn off some fans & critics.
Pre-release, Jamie xx let it slip that this album would be influenced by club music, and everyone thought that meant it would sound like his remix work, with blaring steel drums and crisp drum pops. To my mind, it seems he was talking more about taking the conventions of dance music and sending it through the xx stripping machine. Very few things build up, kick in, or climax here. Instead, they layer slowly, pouring bass lines or hand claps so you might not even notice they've built a beat under your nose. On a song like "Reunion," it takes on the structure of trance songs by privileging atmosphere above all else. It ends with a slow descent down a sonic rabbithole as Romy repeats, like a looped sample, "Did I / see you / see me / in new light?" The particular section sounds like it would be the comedown part of a house track. Except the whole song is comedown, and it goes way, way down.
While it may initially sound like it's got a lot in common with the style of their first album, the organic characteristics of their sound have been scrubbed clean. It's a logical evolution, and one that's only obvious with side-by-side comparisons. The bass no longer sounds like it's being plucked, you can't hear a human hand to the drumwork, and the elliptical guitar is now so calculated it might as well be a loop pedal. It forces your connection to the human voice, which stands solitary and alone in a pristine dark. Oliver in particular sings with new determination. The words no longer appear to fall from his mouth in a lazy slur. Everything may be darkly colored, but it's metallic and sleek.
The heart's traffic is still central to the album, but it's not served on a plate. Without the kick-ups and uptempo shifts that defined songs like "Night Time," the onus is on you to do an emotional reading. It's the difference between a sitcom with a laughtrack and a single cam comedy with no studio audience. You aren't always told when to feel, but the tools and environments are presented to you for it to be possible. It's one of those double edged swords, a blessing and a curse. This is an album I want to give my full attention to, but how often do we even have the opportunity?
It's interesting to note the similarity of the bookends: "Angels," the aforementioned deeply lovestruck minimalist single, and at the caboose, "Our Song." Unlike the former, "Our Song" strikes me as more reassuring and trusting than fawning and infatuated. Instead of some kind of worship, Oliver and Romy sing - at once and to each other - promises. "All I have I will give to you / in the times when no one wants to," it goes, and in verse they turn to providing support:
There's no one that knows me like you do
what I've done, you've done too
the ones I've left behind, you walk through
You just walk through
It strikes me as a little more healthy, balanced and mutual. Although there isn't initially any hollowness to the declarations of love on "Angels", a darkness can be read into it if the bookends are taken together. Because in between these two songs, it's an emotional downpour. They've built a gigantic hole in the middle of this album, a cold and dark void from track 2 through 10. Immediately after the cloud 9 love of the opener, "Chained" delivers us to loss:
Separate or combine, I ask you one last time.
Did I hold it too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?
If a feeling appears, if your mind should sway / it's not a secret you should keep
I won't let you slip away.
We used to be closer than this / We used to get closer than this
Is it something you miss?
Whereas the self-titled was interested in all sorts of aspects of relationships, the words of COEXIST are almost entirely about a separation. Just look at the title: for a breakup, coexistance is at once a simple, minimal requirement and an impossibly tall order. It is simply being in a state of contentedness while someone else is, too. It's the bare essential you could wish for, and yet, it is somehow so hard. The song "Missing", the exact center and event horizon of our hole at track 7, explains:
When I see you again and I'm greeted as a friend
it is understood that we did all we could.
I always thought it was sad the way we act like strangers
after all that we had,
we act like we had never met.
What is coexistance? To go from the one-sided paradise of "Angels" to the immediate rubble that is the rest of the album, what constitutes being at peace and apart? In our world, we try to disappear, which is as close as we get to memory erasure if we work hard enough at it. After all, we block plenty else out of our lives and minds just by avoiding it over time. But the process is always inelegant and seems to kick in for the other party first. On "Tides":
Stay out of view
I wouldn't do that to you
I wouldn't just leave us alone
When we could be close, close, close
Yet even without the active presence of the other, The xx can't escape. No one does. Some of the most doomed songs explore not the event, but just the condition of loneliness. It's not the breakup that gets you, it's what you do to yourself over time as a result. "Unfold" shows us the wandering mind:
In my head
You tell me things you never said
And I choose to forget
And take the good and leave the rest.
The illusion's getting old, and you don't answer when I call.
I would have given you it all.
The song "Fiction," meanwhile, deals with absence as it applies to the intimacy of sleep and allure of dreams:
Mistaken for a vision, something of my own creation.
I wake up alone with only daylight between us.
Come via light, why do I refuse you?
Cause if my fear's right, I risk to lose you.
And if I just might wake up alone, bring on the night.
They divvy up the aspects of loneliness into modular pieces that form a single arc. Together it's about the event, but the individual songs are about the pieces of a separation. The ways you separate. The dreams you'll have, the change in people, the new distance, the regret, the futility, the facades and the things you'll want to say. Typically in music, a break up is treated like a mortal wound. Blood, tears, hysteria. It's an event or an action. To the xx, it's a condition. They sing it like a haunted house where the smallest details grow large in your mind. The horror comes from your own imagination, being left with your own devices.
To make a quaint understatement: being alone is a bummer. For those of us unlucky enough to have it part of our neurosis, you never fully get desensitized to it. At your lowest, it can seem endless. And even then, you want your contact to be meaningful and fruitful, not just anything and desperate. It makes sense for the xx; their music is so full of empty space and distance that it's the perfect vehicle for this expedition. When they're not working in an uptempo space, Oliver and Romy sound utterly alone, and that transfers onto us. It's an unfamiliar night, and that's not everyone's idea of a good time. Even if nothing jumps out to get you, the feeling that something might is what keeps you moving. It's no wonder then, that when the album ends with nary a scare, the initial reaction is disappointment.