A difficult second album, but an intensely rewarding one
For those of you who love The xx at their most sad-eyed and romantically dysfunctional, we recommend ignoring the first track on their second album, ‘Coexist’. Wafting in the same rarefied airspace as ‘Stars’ did on their 2009 debut ‘xx’, ‘Angels’ is the boldest Valentine the band have ever recorded. Romy Madley Croft swoons against ethereal guitars, repeating the word “love” like she’s been sucker-punched by the sheer intensity of her heart-shaped feeling. She’s revelling in the joy of it, but also realising the utter failure of the simple four-letter word to express the depth of what she’s experiencing.
It all feels wrong. A happy xx? Next we’ll find out that Leonard Cohen’s enrolled in clown college. But you needn’t worry. This glow of serene, blissful happiness doesn’t last long. By track two, with the tiptoeing dubstep of ‘Chained’, we’re back to The xx we know. “Did I hold you too tight?/Did I not let enough light in?” she says. “We used to be closer than this/Is it something you miss?” he says.
Two years since their all-conquering first album, Romy and Olly Sim are still playing Battle Of The Bedtime Neurotics, one line at a time. They’re scowling and side-glancing each other from different sides of the room in a metaphorical fight for the duvet. They’re at it again on the funky house of ‘Sunset’. “I saw you again, it was like we never met”, she says. “It felt like you really knew me, now it feels like you see through me”, he says. OH LET’S JUST CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF.
But the thing about The Psychodrama Of The xx (The Continuing Tales Of…) is that we’re totally and utterly hooked. Rubbernecking into conversations between those two is like dipping into a tangle of soapy plotlines. It’s EastEnders + Hollyoaks + Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Who needs Kim and Kanye (Kimye, anyone?) when you’ve got Romy and Olly (R-Olly, anyo…, oh forget it!)?
Of course if you look at it like this, Jamie xx is the gooseberry, standing on the sidelines and making awkward faces at the floor as those two go at it. But in reality he’s the musical glue that holds the album together, the Judge Judy of the whole thing, if you will. And after the ubiquity of their debut (as heard everywhere from BBC idents to Rihanna’s last album, as well as influencing everyone from Jessie Ware to The Weeknd), he’s also fighting an uphill battle to keep The xx’s sound as fresh as it possibly can be. Thankfully he’s steered them away from the most obvious direction – the verse/chorus structures of ‘Islands’ and ‘VCR’ – and driven them off-pop piste, building on the chilly atmosphere of ‘Shelter’ and ‘Fantasy’. He’s drawn a veil around R-Olly’s hushed confessionals, in the form of pitter-patter minimalist house (‘Sunset’), two-step (‘Reunion’) and slowed-down funky house (‘Missing’).
And it’s not just these genres that get twisted about – time in general runs incoherently in xx-world. ‘Reunion’ is the most disorientating track on here. Sprouting from a bubbling brew of tin drums, tangled guitars and stop-start emotions, it builds slowly to a housey climax, trembling over the irresistible edge of a repeated bass groove. Meanwhile, the beautiful ‘Tides’ begins with Romy and Olly’s two lone voices intertwined in their aloneness, before a bass loop whisks you off into the dark anonymity of the nightclub, recalling their wispy 2010 version of Kyla’s ‘Do You Mind?’. Similarly, ‘Missing’ lurches with the weight of inner turmoil as the spectre of Burial hovers over proceedings. Olly’s solo turn on ‘Fiction’ goes all ‘Violator’-era Depeche Mode on us, as dark shadows form around his oozing sense of paranoia, and his confused vulnerability is revealed to be a beautiful illusion.
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. But seriously, dearest xx, please stay melancholic and don’t ever, like, take up jogging or anything like that.