The xx, at this point in their existence, would be wise to put the lessons they’ve learned in their brief tenure as a buzz band to paper. After a headache-inducing rise, hectic touring schedules, losing a band-member, launching impressive solo efforts and winning a Mercury Prize for their self-titled debut, the London group has learned how to navigate the nasty waters of the modern hype machine with grace and poise. But the first record is the easiest; you’re raw and not laden with great expectations. After Rihanna samples a song of yours and your drummer-producer starts collaborating with artists as diverse as Drake and Gil Scott-Heron (not to mention releasing solo work as unique as anything out there; check out Jamie xx’s “Far Nearer” if you’ve slept on it), there’s a certain new level you are expected to perform at. So, these facts having been put forth, Coexist was bound to either be a difficult or disappointing record. Let’s be glad it’s the former.
This is not to say The xx have forgotten what got them here in the first place, as they still do sexy, taut music that shows impressive sonic and melodic restraint. Jamie xx is still as deliberate as ever, sticking to a no-frills sound palette that relies on negative space, muffled 808s and slow-boil buildups. Co-vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim are still singing about their various romantic trysts in a near-whispered unison, but gone is the fraught sexual tension that made their debut such an indelible work. Opener “Angels” sets the agenda to ‘love,’ which is a damned shame; whereas the lyrics used to be filled with hushed, vague longing, now they, on occasion, dip into the reserves of romantic melodrama. It’s not a bad look per se, but for a record promised by Jamie xx to be influenced by “club music,” it’s lacking the sort of sensuality and danger we had come to expect.
Furthermore, I was shocked that Jamie xx did not try to take greater command of the group’s sound. It seems that while Jamie was trying to avoid stepping on his bandmates’ toes he forgot that he is possibly one of the most versatile and clever young producers in the world. None of Coexist’s tracks break that slowed-to-a-crawl tempo. Where are the percussive experiments we were treated to on the Scott-Heron collaboration We’re New Here or his singular take on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”? Where are the twisted vocal samples (after all, Jessie Ware showed they work wonders in the midst of coolly produced love songs like “110%”)? Where is something that recaptures the propulsive joy of “Far Nearer”? I hate to criticize Jamie for keeping The xx a truly democratic band and not pulling a (insert your favorite musical control freak here), but this was his moment for the taking.
Most of what I have had to say makes Coexist sound like an absolute slog, and that is definitely not the case. “Reunion” colors between the lines with its subtle steel drums, “Angels” is a decidedly heartfelt mission statement for the album, “Sunset” is a subdued stomper with one grooving bassline and “Unfold” is as good of an indie makeout jam as anything put out this year. Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim are really coming into their own as vocalists; Sim especially has honed his deep, whispered croon to a point where it can match up with Madley-Croft’s hauntingly expressive voice. But when they succeed The xx remind you of just how good they could be; with a little more variation and adventure, Coexist could have been excellent. Instead, it simply falls into familiar patterns and soundscapes that, while impressively assembled, leave the listener wanting more. Me? I blame Jamie.