The best description I can think of for The xx, as a band, is gloriously muted. They use sound sparingly, like the musical equivalent of a Shinto garden or minimalist design. If I had to compare them to an artist, it would probably be Piet Mondrian, whose most famous works were just black lines with squares of colour, surrounded by expanses of white. This is how I see their music: minimalistic, full of negative space, concisely executed elements placed for specific impact. With less noise and fuss than most artists create in one song, they can craft an album full of nuance, beauty and soul. As in their debut, Coexist is a showcase for their uniquely frugal, spacious style, with an expanded sonic palette and greater ambition.
The songs on Coexist are, almost without exception, striking. The best examples are ‘Missing’, which showcases the new textures and approaches utilised in Coexist, with an almost soaring mid-section, anguished, howling (by xx standards) backing vocals from Oliver Sim and impassioned vocal performances from the two, oh-so-cool pair of vocalists. It’s a gorgeous song and is matched by the subsequent track, ‘Tides’, which is almost danceable.
The entire album is essentially, uniformly excellent, and provides enough variation and flourishes to make it compelling. Picking highlights is a challenge when presented with something this cohesive and clearly intended to be consumed as a whole, rather than in small chunks.
‘Angels’, the first song on the album, however, is a poor opener and a poor choice of single. Their style exists forever on the very edge of simply slipping into a malaise of hazy prettiness. Without the dancier elements, the guitars and the recently added steel drums, what you get is an admittedly pretty but utterly inert mess of a song. It starts out beautifully, gorgeously in fact, but goes nowhere fast. Luckily, it’s the first track and quickly fades from the memory once the excellence of the rest of the album becomes apparent.
The sultry exchange between Sim and Romy Madeley-Croft remains utterly compelling, with each sounding like the opposite-gendered vocal doppelganger of the other. Their relationship, whatever it might be, creates much of the drama on the album, and so when one singer begins to grate, the other takes over. Ultimately, the variance between the two of them keeps the music alive and gives it room to breathe.
Certainly Coexist is more beautiful, more understated and, incredibly, more sexy, but it does lack the sort of pop-smarts that made xx such an accessible delight. There’s nothing with the immediate impact of Islands, or Heart Skipped a Beat, but what it lacks in immediacy, it makes up for in nuance, in subtle beauty and emotional impact. They are growing as a band without sacrificing what it was that made them unique, even if they have lost a little of their groove.