London’s the xx belongs to the rare and dignified breed of artists who, on their debut, emerge fully formed with a unique sound and style all their own. The feat is even more impressive given that each of the xx’s four members are just 20 years old. Their debut album, xx, displays a level of confidence and group telepathy that typically befits a much older band. The music is sleek and nocturnal: a seductive fusion of Young Marble Giants’ minimalist post-punk and Burial’s rain-slick dubstep. However, this is not cold music and, in fact, there is something inherently warm, inviting and just plain sweet in these songs. This mysterious “something” is most likely the lead vocals of Romy Madley Croft (lead guitar) and Oliver Sim (bass) which are hushed and sensually intertwined—much like they are seducing one another. It’s a transfixing trick and the focal point of every xx song.
As cliche as it may be to say, the xx is a subtle band whose music is sparse in the most literal sense. As such, these songs may not bowl you over on the first listen. For the most part, the tunes on xx consist of little more than glassy, serpentine guitar lines, languid bass grooves, cavernous echo and the aforementioned dual vocals. That said, it would be cruel of me to not point out the substantial contributions of Baria Qureshi (keyboards/guitar) and Jamie Smith (beats/sampler) who are equally responsible for the band’s aural cocoon.
xx begins with the brief, instrumental “Intro” which could almost pass for the score to a scene in a James Bond film. Although, it would have be some sort of nautical nighttime mission for Mr. Bond. Much like “Untitled” from Interpol’s equally fully-formed debut (an album that xx sporadically echoes), “Intro” sets the scene and gives listeners their first intoxicating taste of the xx’s soundworld. The gloom-pop of “VCR” follows with a skittering xylophone melody and a tale of love in front of the titular machine. It may just be the most upbeat track on the album, which admittedly isn’t saying much.
The band’s first single “Crystalised” is exactly what the title suggests: a tidy crystallization of the xx’s aesthetic into a three-and-a-half-minute gem. The way Romy and Oliver’s voices melt together singing “So don’t think that I’m pushing you away / When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest” is one of the album’s most spine-tingling moments. For another such moment, look no further than “Heart Skips a Beat”, which finds the two of them echoing the line “Sometimes, I still need you” to each other in a brazenly seductive manner. While “Infinity” may have to fight “Crystalised” for status as xx’s best song, but it is unequivocally the sexiest. It’s knee-weakening meld of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and Interpol’s “Untitled” is utterly spellbinding.
There are moments where xx can feel just a wee bit tedious. From song to song, there is very little in the way of tempo variation or structural difference, and the album goes a little soft in the middle. “Fantasy” and “Shelter” are especially sparse and nebulous, and they kill whatever momentum an album such as this has going for it. If it isn’t apparent already, xx is an album custom-built for certain moods and, obviously, the nighttime. Song titles like “Nighttime” and “Stars” only reinforce this. It’s not really something you can wholeheartedly enjoy in the middle of a sunny day. However, this isn’t necessarily a flaw. In fact, it could be construed as being quite the opposite if you’re in the proper mood/time/place.
Above all though, xx is a thoroughly cohesive, moving and accessible album. This young band of Londoners exhibits a level of maturity, artistry and potential that far exceeds their years. At the same time, their youth and relative inexperience may be part of the key to their music’s success. xx is more than just one of the best debut albums of the year, it is one of the better albums of the year, period.