Appreciating the xx can be as much an exercise in restraint as is their songwriting. Their 2009 self-titled debut won the U.K.’s Mercury Prize and topped several critics’ best of lists, even though there was shockingly little to it. Their lean, intimate, and nocturnal sound was built on cleanly arpeggiated guitar riffs, a slow burn tension between vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft and the wiry R&B backdrops crafted by ace London DJ/producer Jamie Smith. Similar to their starkly recognizable namesake and artwork, the xx’s songs create a delicate yet powerful sense of negative space —- they’re just as memorable for what they leave out as to what they include.
Fittingly, sophomore album Coexist is remarkable not for how it builds upon this device, but for what it strips away. The songs have been whittled down to such an anorexic state that you’re tempted to check for a pulse. There are less guitars, more spartan beats, and even fewer sonic elements to tease apart, making Coexist a meticulous, quietly-crafted testament to patience and structure. It’s a window view into the heart of an exhausted relationship so stripped of all treatments and frills that only bruises are left to behold.
Most of the songs are composed from simple melodies and accoutrements — the lullaby guitar figure in “Angels,” those steel drums washing over “Reunion,” and the clubland beats that hit on “Swept Away” like little hammers against a glass heart. The voices of Sim and Madley-Croft remain the focal point, sounding crystal clear and immediate, even as their words conspire against one another. “Separate or combine?/ I ask you one last time” says Sim on “Chained” but the song’s melancholic tone already belies the answer. Most of the album’s lyrics revolve around the idea of absence within a relationship and the sense of doubt it germinates. A vast hollowness exists within and is described by Coexist, an album about two people who seemingly no longer can.
At times, the co-dependence between the narrators is startling. Sim is despondent on “Missing” (“Will you miss me/ When there’s nothing to see?”) but oddly yearning on “Swept Away” (“Part of you stays awhile/ Even when you’re far away.”) On “Unfold,” a lovelorn Madley-Croft freely admits her delusions: “In my head/You tell me things you’ve never said.” As metaphor for a lovers’ dialogue, Coexist feels so austere, so precise, and so troubled that you wonder what was ever really between them in the first place. At the very end of album finale “Our Song”, there’s a brief sound of shuffling in the studio that the xx curiously left in, almost as if to prove there are real humans behind this record.
The xx push the limits by reducing their songs to so few elements that they begin to lose all substance. It’s an act of endurance that can be heard to stomach. If you’ve ever been silent for a long period of time (several hours or even days), you know that sensory deprivation actually heightens awareness. It’s lonely, painful, and nerve-wracking, but ultimately a meditative quality sets it. Coexist is like this; it’s impossibly sparse and so filled with nothing that, at first, listening to it is unsettling and even boring. But then a calm arrives. Your senses sharpen. Even small sonic shifts feel like mountains moving. You have to recalibrate expectations when listening to this record; not surprisingly, Coexist sounds magnificent on headphones.
At its heart, Coexist is essentially the same difficult question asked over and over again— can two damaged people, however much they want to, ever make a broken relationship work? I’m not sure it ever gives an answer. No album in recent memory has so many lyrics encumbered with doubt: “We used to get closer than this/ Is it something you miss?” “Did I hold you too tight?/ Did I not let enough light in?” “And if we try once more/ Would you give me it all?” In the end, the album fades out of sight like a wraith, with all of the issues unresolved and wounds open. One final question remains unspoken — if this album is just vapor, how can it take up so much space in your head?
The xx – “Chained” – mp3