By Greg Salter
In an era when young bands’ debut albums are often previewed and hyped excessively for months, even years, The XX’s first album emerged with relatively little fanfare back in 2009 and promptly floored just about everyone who heard it. The unique combination that brought the band success is now so familiar that it hardly bears repeating – the interplay between the vocals of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft, the R&B-derived melodies, Jamie Smith’s focused distillation of dance music textures, and, more than anything, the space, the hush, the intimacy in those songs.
Coexist doesn’t so much build on everything that made The XX’s debut so appealing, unique and easy to live in, but rather returns to the same spaces to occupy them in a slightly different way, a few years older and wiser. Looking back at The XX, one of the keys to its appeal was the way Madley-Croft and Sim conveyed an intense, teenage kind of love that we all recognise and perhaps romanticise. On Coexist, after years of touring, the band sound a little less sure of themselves lyrically – relationships come together and disintegrate across the album and it makes for a slightly less immediate, though possibly more interesting follow up.
Elsewhere, the band has quietly grown in confidence. Madley-Croft shines on opener ‘Angels’, the track that is probably closest to the plaintive love songs on their debut, as well as the drifting, soulful ‘Swept Away’. Meanwhile, Oliver Sim’s voice is vastly improved; sure and confident, he now sounds like a more equal partner on tracks like ‘Chained’, where the pair’s voices coagulate into an intimate mixture of yearning and sensuality: “We used to get closer than this/Is it something that you miss?” He carries the bittersweet ‘Fiction’, a meditation on a relationship threatening to fall apart – if Sim played the detached observer on The XX, lines like “And if I just might wake up alone”, sung with the ache of distance, shows the rewards of maturity on Coexist.
And it’s not just Sim and Madley-Croft who have quietly upped their game – if Jamie Smith gets a little too much grief from the dance/bass/whatever community for his solo work, his remixes and explorations outside of the band over the last few years pay dividends here. Yes, the steel drums show up again on ‘Reunion’, fighting a little a-rhythmically against the vocals, but elsewhere he introduces textures and motifs lifted from house, strains of hiphop and what remains of dubstep to set these songs in a vast space that can feel as oddly intimate as it does slightly alienating. That emptiness overwhelms ‘Reunion’ with a muted 4/4 beat, while on ‘Tides’ rattling noises lift into a subtle groove that eventually sweeps over and under the vocal harmonies. On standout ‘Missing’ meanwhile, Smith inserts a pause just before the song breaks open with a sharp shard of guitar melody and Sim’s exquisite vocals – it’s perfect, a moment when the band’s individual strengths come together in a way that sets them far apart from their peers.
Yes, Coexist lacks the initial punch of the band’s debut, the beautiful shock of hearing a group of musicians emerge so fully formed, so sure of themselves and so full of restraint at such a young age. There are also perhaps fewer radio-hits-in-waiting here, but what the album lacks in immediacy it makes up for in quite stunning composition and production, as well as the sense that this is the beginning of a band unmooring themselves from the debut album that initially defined them. If you come to it ready to be absorbed rather than blown away like you were three years ago, this understated but quite assured step forward is quietly stunning.