How many listens should you give an album before you put it to one side, sigh and accept it's never going to become a best friend? I've been preoccupied with this thought for a few weeks now regarding - and this almost feels taboo - The xx's 'Coexist'.
First things first: there is absolutely nothing wrong with 'Coexist' as a stand-alone record. It's perfectly decent. 'Angels', the album's opener, is a gorgeous ballad, quietly histrionic with Romy Madley Croft's gentle vocals the focus. It sets the tone: slow, atmospheric, crepuscular, soporific. Jamie Smith has crystallised his artful interpretation of two-step, garage, dubstep and drum 'n' bass into a trademark sound, establishing him as one of the most skilful producers in the world today.
And yet. Honestly? I've found a lot of the songs a little bit... meh. Perhaps it's too much to expect the album to hit as hard as the band's debut. Should it be enough that The xx gave us a new sound to begin with?
I've listened to 'Coexist' now over 30 times. I desperately, desperately want to love this album and I refuse to believe that I won't. At times it sounds like ambient muzak to me, at others I will listen to the beautiful bass riff in Sunset (2.11 seconds in) another 20 times in a row.
Why is it heresy to dislike the new xx album? A colleague believes its status as an "intellectual" album suggests only a moron wouldn't be able to appreciate it (Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective also fit into this category). Perhaps it's difficult to imagine XL would ever release anything less than genius. Maybe it's just because Jamie, Oliver and Romy seem like dudes you'd want to hang out with.
Some would argue that it's simply a natural reluctance to accept anything inferior to the band's eponymous debut. It set the bar - and our expectations - high. My theory? The best artists evolve and experiment, changing their sound album-to-album. Yes, there's a refinery and distillation to 'Coexist' but it's not stretching boundaries. Call me a neophiliac, but I'd rather hear a band head in a grimecore or rap direction than more of the same. Anyway, I'm going to reserve ultimate judgement until I see them play the album live tonight.
The reviews have been mainly positive. At the moment 'Coexist' scores a 76 per cent on Metacritic. The Quietus, the Indy and Q didn't like it as much as others. Here's a digest:
The net result of the genre-flipping and lyrical play is that ‘Coexist’ is a difficult album. It hides more than ‘xx’ did, sneaking its miserable joys behind bare spaces, surprise time signatures and subtle dramas. But listen after listen it reveals just as many treasures beneath its layers of shimmering sadness.
Coexist is yet another masterpiece of lush asceticism.
It spends much of its length stuck wandering in a hazy space between the two, pretty but rudderless.
It’s almost too perfect to bear.
For now, they've earned the right to make this record. Every band that creates a new world deserves a chance to return to it, to play around some more and see how much inspiration still exists. Asking for a third shot at it, on the other hand, is generally a harder sell.
The world adored the xx’s Mercury Prize-winning debut album xx. Coexist is, if anything, an even finer piece of work.
While, superficially, The xx appear to have retained for Coexist the same modest sonic approach as on their debut – small guitar figures, wisps of synth, the muffled puttering of steel pans and beats that seem embarrassed to be beating – underneath the surface, it's all raging emotions where its predecessor timidly avoided revealing the trio's inner feelings.