[10 September 2012]
PopMatters Music Editor
Painting minimalist soundscapes in shades that range from muted darkness to pitch-black atmospherics, the xx has never had the most supplies in its art box or the broadest palette. But what made the xx’s 2009 self-titled debut stand out was the nuance and care with which the band used its basic tools, as it maintained an impressively consistent aesthetic while throwing in enough variations on its main theme to keep things vital. Whether the first outing was spare by design or by necessity for the newbie act, the album showed that the xx was masterful at making the most out of not-a-lot, nimbly tweaking tempos and drawing out subtle contrasts in tone to create dramas of hardly seen visions and barely heard sounds. Shaped by a combination of precocious skill and instinct, xx worked as a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The same, however, can’t quite be said for the xx’s follow-up, Coexist: Whereas the first album brought more out of each and every song thanks to deft sequencing and a fine-tuned sense of pacing, the trio is so intent and focused on the nuances of Coexist that it seems to have overlooked how all the pieces fit together in the bigger picture. So the xx may have developed and honed its meticulous craft by sweating the details here, but it comes at the expense of the vibrant, intuitive feel of its earlier triumph, as most of the offerings on Coexist blur together with the same downbeat production, the same deliberate electro-pop orchestration, the same slo-mo tempo, the same languorous soul-searching in the vocals. In the process of trying to perfect every sound, from the grain of Romy Madley Croft’s and Oliver Sim’s smoldering girl-boy vocals to the slight rattle of guitar chords to the almost imperceptible hum from vibrating bass strings, the xx almost refines its music out of existence.
There’s a monochromatic quality to Coexist that never quite lifts, as the album’s composition, production, even track lengths hardly ever vary, with the vocals up front and the instrumental parts and Jamie Smith’s electronic embellishments unobtrusively winding their way behind. While the opener “Angels” definitely puts Coexist on the right track as one of the album’s stronger, more appealing pieces, it nonetheless feels like it would be better served as an intro that starts to bring the energy up from a simmer than as a tone-setter that locks in a measured pace and whispered cadences that hardly shift from beginning to end. It says something about “Angels” that Madley Croft’s hushed vocals are often its most prominent element: Sparse sound effects, like a tiny thump of drum or a wispy guitar pattern, never take on roles as big as they could or should, mostly lurking in the background to complement the low-intensity lovesickness of the vocals, even dropping out of the picture as Madley Croft all but goes a capella at points.
While the after-hours vibe can evoke immediacy and intimacy, it’s often missing a spark, which makes the xx’s music feel colder and more abstract than it should be, especially when compared to how the first record used canny textural contrasts and changes in mood to strike an emotional connection. Rather than launch into something that ignites more of a visceral reaction, “Angels” only fades into the downcast “Chained”, which may be even more restrained, its soulful duet complemented by fragile accompaniments like a gossamer guitar thread that climbs tantalizingly only to disappear as quickly as it materialized. And while the drum-machine pings on “Fiction” bear enough of a resemblance to those from Yo La Tengo’s indie-electro single “Saturday”, it’s what’s missing from the former when you match it up to the latter that you notice the most, namely a warm radiance that can shine through and illuminate the hazy atmospherics.
These moments are but a few of many fits-and-starts that tempt you into thinking that Coexist is just about the turn the corner and pick up steam, only to pull back and continue on in its own measured way. Whatever hints the xx gives that it might break out of its daze on Coexist end up being fleeting, whether it’s how the melodic echo of steel drums fades out just as it begins to get your attention on “Reunion” or how an intriguing guitar pattern on “Unfold” is a tad too slow, too quiet, and too short to really, well, unfold. On “Try”, a little slithery synth line and bubbling guitar effects are as close as anything to chills and thrills you’ll find on Coexist, as Sim almost seems like he’s testing and teasing the listener’s patience when he coos, “We bide our time.” Nothing could better describe the subdued effort of Coexist, except that it doesn’t become quite clear when that time might come and whether the wait for it is too long for the payoff you’re hoping for.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though, that Coexist is an exercise in delayed gratification, if you’re paying attention to what the passive-aggressive love songs are about thematically. As much as anything else in the mix, the damaged lyrics and hushed singing only amplify the monotony of Coexist and drag things out all the more. As Coexist takes its time to unwind its romantic scenarios, they incrementally lose their sense of drama as the semi-requited desire Madley Croft and Sim sing about so self-consciously becomes redundant and almost oppressive. Sure, “Reunion” might get to the heart of how paralyzing slow-burning infatuation can be, as Madley Croft and Sim shyly duet, “Did I / See you / See me / In a new light?,” before deciding that reuniting is “Never / Not ever again” a possibility. But the hemming-and-hawing inaction gets old when the next track, the Interpol-lite “Sunset”, replays the scene, ending with Madley Croft resigned that, “Now it feels like you see through me.” That very same sentiment feels like a lead balloon by the time you get to “Missing”, which weighs down Coexist smack dab in the middle of it, as Sim concludes, “Now there’s no hope for you and me.”
Still, that’s not say that Coexist doesn’t offer enough to admire in its low-profile pleasures, once you appreciate what you’re getting out of the album—and what you’re not. While little on Coexist makes the instant impact that xx’s most compelling songs do, the best selections here possess a subliminal quality that insinuates itself subconsciously given time. In effect, you come to realize that tracks like “Angels” and “Sunset” have their own sense of development and come to their own resolution, after you recognize that’s something you won’t find on Coexist as a whole. “Tides” recovers a bit of that magic from the xx’s early singles thanks to its psychodrama keyboards, even if they’re modulated at what seems like half the volume and half the speed. Best of all is the penultimate number “Swept Away”, which gets some momentum going to close the album, with brisk disco beats and insistent guitar harmonics. It’s the best example of the xx pushing its formula ahead, more complex in the way it intertwines rhythm and melody to show what its new, more mature approach can achieve.
You might suspect that Coexist is the kind of album that makes a stronger connection over time, as the xx’s slow-played virtuosity reveals more and more, if you have the chance to be as patient with it as the music is. For now, though, it’s hard not to feel that one of the year’s most anticipated releases only keeps you waiting and waiting for something more to happen.