The XX ‘Coexist’ – Review

14 Sep

When Radiohead released ‘King of Limbs’, my inital reaction was ‘is this it?’ Not necersarily because what I was hearing wasn’t good enough, it was just surprising that after nearly four years away they came back with an eight track album that was only 35 minutes long.  It wasn’t that it felt insubstantial, but it did seem slight; the songs were short, the guitars were very much in the background and the arrangements were delicate and subtle. My gut feeling (and I wasn’t alone) was that ‘King of Limbs’ would be a teaser for something else. Something bigger. Maybe it was the first of many Radiohead releases that year. But as the weeks went by, and announcments evaded us, it became apparent that ‘King of Limbs’ was a stand-alone album and that would be it.

I mention all this because I had the exact same feeling the first time I heard ‘Angels’, the first single from The XX’s second album ‘Coexist’. The song is a beautiful ballad that features vocals, guitar, bass and a Phil Spector meets Burial beat that pops up only fleetingly over the song’s 2 and a half minutes. My gut reaction, again, was ‘is this it?’ and again, it wasn’t because ‘Angels’ was bad, in fact it’s one of the best songs they’ve ever made, but it felt so minimal, naked and (in the best possible sense) unimportant. What happened to the new dance orintated XX we were told so much about? I thought they had been listening to Chicago House and visiting raves? After Jamie’s recent production work outside the band we expected the production to be as cutting edge and as revolutionary as the debut’s but this didn’t sound it. ‘Angels’, I concluded, must be a red herring, or a teaser, there was no way that this could possibly be the first single proper.

Except it was. Not only that, but ‘Angels’ opens the album. In two and a half minutes The XX declare that they have no intention of doing what is expected of them, they have no intention of making dance music, they have no intention of ripping up the rule book. On this record they have taken the elements that made the debut so successful and they’ve fine tuned them and then stripped away what wasn’t strictly neccersariy. The beats take a back seat here. On the debut Jamie’s drum programming opened the most distinctive songs, ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’ and ‘Islands’, but here most songs open to the sound of a guiater, hushed vocals or even just haunting, almost empty, reverb. Only track 2 ‘Chained’ really takes you by the scruff of the neck from the off, the other songs take time to reveal their charms.

The cover is appropriate. It’s basicly the same as the cover to the debut, making it therefore as instantly recongnisable as the music (can you think of another band who have created such a unique and influential musical and visual identity after only one album? I can’t). On the cover, in the enlarged X that hogs the white background, acidic colour floats about in subtle but distinctive shades. Greens, blues, purples, reds that melt into each other. On the album these flashes of colour are represented by unique sounds that penetrate the overall mood of darkness and the everpresent reverb of the guitar and bass. But the colour is used sparingly, very sparingly; the strings on ‘Tides’, the organ on ‘Sunset’, the steel drums on ‘Reuinon’, the synth of tides, the warping effect on ‘Our Song’, the four to the floor beat on ‘Swept Away’. Each song has a special element that makes it stand out, but othewise these songs are all cut from the same cloth. Vocal melodies are made to sound very similar by Oliver and Romy’s distinctively moody but rather limited range. Guitar lines are simple and one sounds much the same as the other, the same goes for the bass. The beats are hip and very much up to date, except when they’re being playfully nostalgic, such as the classic house beat that draws so much attention to itself on ‘Swept Away’, or the almost toy like 808 sounds on ‘Fiction’.

Like the songs on the debut, the lyrics on ‘Coexist’ paint a picture of a broken heart that is in no danger of being fixed anytime soon. Here the emotions are even more exagerated and melodramatic. The themes are classic and well known and rather than shed new light on these old fashioned concerns, the group simply present them in a new context. Quoting lyrics here is pointless; on paper they will seen banal, simplistic and even clichéd. There is no inherent music in these words when they sit on a paper, but delivered by Oliver and Romy they are transformed into pure, heart-wrenching poetry.

I have so much respect for this band for staying true to their principles. It’s potentialy dangerous for a group to stay dormant for this long after an album, and there is the risk that in those wilderness years they will have lost their spark, fans will have lost interest or their influence will have waned (see Animal Collective). In fact, The XX’s influence and popularity have grown enormously over the past three years. Just listen to James Blake, Drake or even Rihanna and you will surely acknowledge that the band’s approach to space, silence and minimalism has had a huge impact on both obscure and mainstream pop. Their debut was sitting on shelves for months before people finally started to take notice, and it was a full year before it finally entered the top ten (after winning the Mercury Music prize). Their popularity is peaking right now and this week it looks like ‘Coexist’ will enter the charts at number one. It’s a well deserved victory for good music.

The XX have been one of the most influential bands of the last decade, but ‘Coexist’ reminds me that before all the hype and hyperbole it all started with an album, a very good album. The fear is that because ‘Coexist’ hasn’t redefined or changed anything it will be viewed as a failure or a cop out. It’s anything but. Simply, it’s another very good album that may lack the jaw drpping impact of the debut, but given time it may turn out to be even more of an understated triumph.

8.5/10

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