, September 3rd, 2012 03:39
There are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the continued presence of The xx in the UK pop music ecosystem. For a start, they're free of bravado: given that the previous decade's British guitar music had been dominated by lager-swilling swagger and sonnets to smack, their 2010 debut was a refreshingly slight and understated little thing. Its essential oddness might since have been undermined by its subsequent ubiquity as background music to kitchen sink BBC dramas (and fifty quid man's kitchen stereo), wildlife documentaries and (apparently) the Prime Ministerial four-poster, but it remains central to their appeal, especially in the live arena, where there's an ever-increasing discrepancy between the hushed nature of their songs and the enormous crowds they're performed to.
Their self-titled debut was also characterised by how delicately it handled the stuff of other genres. In particular, they were one of the first pop bands to experiment successfully with dubstep's hollowed-out contours - Jamie 'Jamie XX' Smith's subtle electronic post-production opened up resonant echo chambers that dwarfed the slight construction of the songs themselves. For the likes of 'Islands' and 'Crystalise' that served to further amplify their sense of intimacy, painting Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft as two figures alone in a large and otherwise uninhabited space. Foremost of all, though, they had hooks. Tiny ones, yes, and samey enough to slightly dull their impact over the length of an entire record, but none of the aspects that made The xx a notable record would have mattered without actual songs to back it all up.
Which makes Coexist all the more frustrating a listen. It starts off promising, with a pair of opening songs that rank alongside their debut's best, and a couple of prettily evocative couplets that suggest an upping of the lyrical ante. 'Angels' ("You move through the room / Like breathing was easy") builds a clear bridge between the beatless spaces of their debut to The xx of 2012 , while 'Chained' ("Did I hold too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?") softly introduces the hallmark that defines the rest of the album: muffled, woodblocky two-step beats. The latter in particular is a languidly lovely, moving and seemingly effortless piece of work: their characteristic, chiming guitars-as-raindrops emerge in brief clusters before swiftly evaporating and adding to the clouds of vapour that billow gently across the track's surface. It's the only track on Coexist to succeed in achieving what the rest of the album attempts: post-Burial pop with the same nostalgic tug as the shadowy garage producer's own work.
Dance music has been implicit in the tentative forward momentum of The xx's songs since the beginning. Smith's subsequent solo forays into built-for-the-club music have been inconsistent, and jarringly heavy-handed with the steel pan presets (although his excellent remix of FaltyDL's 'Hip Love' from last year was a notable exception). It's pleasing to hear that, while his presence is more clearly audible on Coexist, he hasn't simply furnished his bandmates with a series of backing tracks across which to scatter their relationship musings - though on 'Reunion' those bloody steel pans keep trying their level best to batter their way into earshot through a fug of reverbed guitar.
The band do, however, express their club music influences more explicitly than on their debut. Rather than simply appropriating its textures, many songs mirror its construction, eschewing straightforward verse/chorus in favour of rolling song structures. Voice and guitar motifs creep into earshot, weave around one another for a while, recede, then return - all the while propelled gently along by cosy, elastic garage beats. Sonically impressive, and a daring move in theory, but in practice it proves to be Coexist's real weakness. Following the startling opening pair of tracks, the album swiftly settles into that formula and sticks with it throughout. The effect is soporific. Songs become indistinct within the wider fabric of the album, and a paucity of notable hooks frequently leaves Madley-Croft and Sim feeling more like extra textural elements in their own songs, rather than focal points.
So Coexist isn't a 'pop' album, at least not in the sense of their debut; but neither is its production and songwriting quite clearly defined enough to make it a roundly successful downtempo dance record. Rather, it spends much of its length stuck wandering in a hazy space between the two, pretty but rudderless. They perfect the formula occasionally - penultimate track 'Swept Away' matches its name, a pillow-soft cascade of plummy bass notes and piano house, across which their voices whisper like wind - but for much of Coexist they sound halting, nervous, afraid to push beyond the boundaries they've created around their sound. They're still an important band to have around - too few in The xx's position represent so directly the sonically adventurous genres they're influenced by. But where The xx's quietness and reticence felt like measures of confidence at a time when those qualities were rare to tickle mainstream ears, on Coexist, frustratingly, they often feel like quite the opposite.