Album review: The XX – ‘The XX’

Urban tales of heartbreak and adoration from four sensitive south London souls

Space. Everyone needs it to stay sane. In London, though, it’s hard to find. Coffin-narrow streets are piled with tiny flats, subdivided into even tinier rooms, cramped and claustrophobic. No act of chance, perhaps, that it’s in the capital that the most original music of recent years, dubstep, with its booming, echoing spaces, first developed.

[a]The XX[/a], four kids from the dubstep heartland of south London, have quietly set up an emotional squat in those spaces, with bedsit-delicate love songs. It’s strange that such a traditional

set-up (drums, bass, keys, guitars, voices) has resulted in one of 2009’s most unique debuts. The praise can be laid at the door of the band themselves: synths-and-beats man Jamie Smith produced the album himself and they draw together eclectic materials from avant-garde hip-hop to R&B to pure pop.

‘Islands’, a gorgeous psycho-geographical love song, finds the husky twosome of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft cooing, “I am yours now, so now I never have to leave/I’ve been found out, so I’ll never explore”: the perfect soundtrack for wandering aimlessly along rainy London streets.

‘Heart Skips A Beat’ is, again, almost unbelievably beautiful, aching with longing. All these songs seem in the first flush of love, agonisingly obsessed, talking of waiting outside doors and wanting to drown. ‘VCR’, casting a match into the gloom with a bright, innocent keyboard chime, recounts evenings filled with unspoken, natural intimacy. For a band of schoolfriends whose singers “learned to speak together”, this is not insignificant.

That closeness intensifies on the beautifully menacing ‘Crystalised’, a gentle warning to an over-hasty lover. The contrast between the reverberating spaces of their stripped-back sound and the almost insular intimacy of the soft, smoky duets is totally delicious. Towards the end, though, that deliciousness can start to become suffocatingly rich. But that’s a little bit like complaining about having too many diamonds, though. For the most part it seems like the space The XX have made for themselves is infinite.

Emily Mackay

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