Earthy & Complicated: The xx's Coexist Track By Track
, August 21st, 2012 06:10
Next month, London trio The xx release their much-anticipated second album Coexist. Luke Turner takes you on a track-by-track guide through its eleven "far more earthy, sticky, complicated" songs
The great big red herring that opened The xx's launch of their second album onto the world. For this is perhaps the only track that's closest to the blueprint to their self-titled debut – sparse guitar, clicking beats, vocal interplay between Romy and Oliver.
Yet it's not just that. If anything, this brings things back even further, the microphones straining so hard to catch every sense of the room in which the song was recorded that I swear you can hear distant seagulls at one of the points where all the music disappears. There's far more distance between the high and low of the drum sounds, and "You move through the room / like breathing was easy" is a great line.
Atmospherics dominate from the start here too, with a crackle and hiss like vinyl. But again, listen closer... that barely perceptible low sound, like a gentle breeze in tree tops, starts to match the developing beat. "I won't let you slip away..." sings Oliver ."...we used to be closer than this" replies Romy, before the pair join in "we used to get closer than this... is it something you miss." Similar lyrical approaches to those on the debut, then, but this is very different sonically. There's that Burial lamppost flick in the rhythms, pans of steel guitar-aping synth, great washes of cymbal.
An Oliver solo vocal piece, 'Fiction' starts with stick-bouncing-on-electric-drum and a vocal that takes a turn into a guitar web. Then, a judicious gear shift around the two minute mark gives more anxious life, with the introduction of piano chords and a teasing vocal surge, a commendable restraint from the temptation to lob in a ludicrous chorus. It might feel tentative, but in an age of brash honking, The xx's reserve is what makes them stand out. Sonically, though, Coexist is emerging as a far fuller record than their debut.
That's also heard in the increasing palette from which they're drawing. A case in point on 'Try' is the terrific whistling sound that opens this, a sort of arpeggio spiral by one of the Clangers. It's a nice little motif that recurs throughout the track, rising and falling around tremulous guitar and the glitch of the rhythm. A satisfyingly odd track.
Steel drums burble excitedly, like silvery, sunlit water underneath the vocals. To be fair, the vocal cadence on 'Reunion' (and the lyrics themselves) are at first quite reminiscent of the debut album track 'Infinity', until the pacey, clipping Jamie xx beats come in. It's a clever tactic, using the comforter of familiarity to sneak the sound of the British underground into the pop mainstream. It's subtly done, but The xx are here proving they're one of the more effective Trojan horses the leftfield / independent world has for infiltrating the world of Radio 1, ads, and trailers for depressing, gritty dramas.
Having said that, it's not quite as clear where those 'creatives' are going to find the instrumentals for idents on the telly this time around. That's because with the stronger, more defined beats and increased use of bass frequencies, the xx of Coexist is more integrated, solid, impermeable – something clearly heard on 'Sunset'. The xx don't make tracks for the dancefloor (surely a shrewd move from 'he's bloody everywhere' DJ Jamie), but this track (and others), are the echo of it, the sound of the bass, still feeling the imperative to move. It's therefore post-club music, but not in a sit-around-in-the-dawn, having-a-chew way. Instead, the intimacy instead makes gives this a rather, well, erotic quality - there's an energy to this music that really captures the intensity of post-club sex.
Another new sound and technique, with (presumably Romy) singing notes in the background over an Oliver vocal lead, a role they reverse later on in the track (cleverly adding a new layer to their interplay that stops it becoming tired). And in 'Missing' lies another secret to The xx's mainstream success. Yes, that hooves-clopping-on-steel beat might be all very London and very now, but there's also something everyman and soaring about the chorus here that's not actually a million miles from Coldplay, the guitar even reflecting the emptiness-as-epic of U2. The knack that The xx have is still retaining a quiet intimacy, rather than sounding like a joyous fart in a Ford Mondeo by a marketing middle manager celebrating a cheeky 100mph on the M1.
Again, structure and invention are key to this track. It commences with a thin, cinematic string piece (that hiss still very present) and vocals alone before the quiet funk is brought into play, via a bassline and beat that hints at Michael Jackson, perhaps 'Billie Jean', slowed down. It is markedly different from anything on the debut, or indeed anything else around right now. The strings are what makes it, though, and it's to be hoped that The xx might continue to explore what they can bring to their songwriting dynamic. Given the 'glue 'em on and hope for the best' approach most artists take to orchestration, that's a huge compliment. A real stand-out track on the album that fits a hell of a lot into two seconds over two minutes.
Track nine of an xx album is probably the point where you think "Hmmm, perhaps they could write lyrics about something other than the dynamics in human relationships... how about the popularity of local Putney Heath as popular haunt of Highwaymen in times past, or an ode to those magnificent tunnelling machines getting ready, like metallic Tremors worms, to slither and spit rock and clay under their beloved London?" Anyway, this listener for one has been able to let their cyniscm lie, and 'Untold' is yet another solid track, samples like things knocking in an abandoned building, a rhythm as wheels on rails. Perhaps they leave it to Jamie to do the mechanical imagining.
The penultimate doesn't see the pace let up at all. Here, a one-two beat and what might be a jogger/pervert's breath give the rhythm, as well as the by now familiar clicks and clops. This is perhaps the most soulful vocal Romy has yet delivered, and surely sign of a growing confidence. I remember seeing an early xx gig when the band members looked distinctly nervous, and you could hardly hear them over the babble of the room (the appalling Cafe 1001 off Brick Lane). That diffidence is now a thing of the past as, in The xx's hand, reserve becomes a weapon. Anyway, that plucked guitar sound comes in in a nice little refrain around the 10 minute mark. It's clever – so recognisable, so above the main rhythmic drive that it becomes like a signifier. You could almost imagine Jamie xx dropping just that one part of the song over someone else's tune in one of his DJ sets. A nice eloquent piano flourish to close it off too.
They end in fine, sophisticated style with 'Our Song', which ebbs and flows into lovely big shoegaze textures that, once again, never become overbearing or strive for an epic send-off. Title and lyrics suggest they could even be slightly tongue-in-cheek about all that 'me, you, where we stand' stuff too.
If their debut painted a sense of intimacy coupled with loss, then Coexist suggests something more turbulent, sensual and fun. Curiously, though lyrically the theme always seems to be a pre-existing relationship, and of course not necessarily a sexual or romantic one, the feel of this second record is far more earthy, sticky, complicated, like the tension of the second or third encounters after a one night stand. What next? Lust continuing before a fizzle, or love? Coexist represents a real consolidation of The xx's sound. We've heard some of it before, but it's rare in today's lo-fi, half-arsed, attention-deficit climate that you come across an artist who really works at crafting and honing what they do, ramping up sonics rather than clamour or brash colour.