You have to take notice of a keenly anticipated album that opens with the gentlest of ballads. It’s brave, it’s courageous, and it’s exactly what contemporary music needs. And it’s what The xx do on Coexist, a record that fans of indie music have been looking forward to since 2009, when the band’s self-titled sophomore release bagged them the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. On paper, The xx are a curious proposition: a male singer who plays bass, a female singer who plays guitar, a percussionist who does it all with electronics (and is becoming a much sought-after DJ and producer). This is very simple, sparse, left-of-field pop music, as if your brother and sister and their mate are practicing in the bedroom next door. It is, however, beautifully structured and carefully crafted, every song a sublime mix of peaks and troughs, even silences. Both voices, despite their youth, are surprisingly soulful, but certainly not in a Whitney Houston or boy-band way; this is all about feeling and intimacy – if soul music is all about, well, bearing your soul, then The xx make soul music. But it’s also very, very modern.
Like any band that sounds like no-one else, there are challenges. How to explore and develop while holding on to what makes you special in the first place and keeping your fan-base? Iceland’s Sigur Ros has had the same problem, and they’ve sustained their career by pushing out the boundaries of their sound without really progressing in any way (leaving that task to lead-singer Jonsi’s side-projects). What is The xx’s answer? The band members were only 17 years old when they recorded their first album, and due to its success spent the next couple of years touring the world (and losing a second guitarist at the beginning of the journey). When they took a break they rather understandably hit the nightclubs of their native UK for a bit of r&r. In many ways, Coexist is the band heading in a dance-music direction.
Thankfully the craft and sense of dynamic remains. These songs won’t fill nightclubs, though no doubt many will be remixed (they’d be stupid not to give at least a couple to atmospheric beat-master Burial, who’d do extraordinary things with this stuff – darken it right up to the point that shivering might be a good idea). In fact, on Coexist, the songs are so brittle, so fragile, that it’s hard to imagine them even being played live. That opening ballad, ‘Angels’, is a case in point: it feels as if singer Roma Madley Croft is going to simply dissolve in front of our ears (eyes). ‘Reunion’, which contrasts Croft’s sweet tones with the deeper timbre of bassist Oliver Sim, is similarly delicate, although does manage to climb into a glorious coda that, it’s true, gets the toes tapping. Towards the end of the collection is ‘Swept Away’, which is The xx at their most clubby, the song building and building into a jungle rhythm (‘jungle’ as in Tarzan, not the style of dance music).
If you’re detecting a hint of reservation in these words, it’s that this fine mix of beauty and intimacy can become all a bit of a blur in the wash-up. On Coexist The xx don’t stop you in your tracks; it’s a bit like how you can make a mix-tape of your favourite songs only to find that there’s something lacking – sometimes you need some songs that you don’t like, or songs that you don’t like initially but end up working out, or songs that are edgy and dangerous and unexpected. Perhaps that’s where The xx should go next: into the land of danger and the unexpected; they’ve dipped in a toe but really should dive in head-first. They’ve proved that they can be audacious, now they just need to put that spirit at the centre of everything they do. And the world will be theirs.
(Postscript: if an album is good enough, as in potentially great, I buy it on vinyl. I own Coexist on vinyl.)