Album Review: Coexist by the xx / by Anna Li

The vanishing act is a refined illusion: a band surfaces from an abyss of anonymity. The album becomes critically acclaimed. The energetic hype dies down, they dip into obscurity for a short stint, and then—from nowhere—they emerge back into the spotlight with a shiny, new album.

The xx’s resurrection feels less like calculated disappearance and more like the texture of their music—ghostlike, spectral. After releasing their self-titled album in 2009 while still in high school, the xx garnered significant attention, boasting the 2010 Mercury Prize and selling nearly 400,000 copies to date[1]. But after the concert tours and promotional fillers, the xx evaporated back into their quiet horizons.

And then—from nowhere—Coexist appears. Coexist maintains their roots of distinct minimalism, but develops very differently from debut album’s youthful conception. The trio (Jamie Smith, Oliver Sim, and Romy Madley Croft) has come a long way since sending lyrics through instant messaging or singing into their computer speakers to avoid waking up their parents. [2] Now in their early twenties, Coexist reaches toward mature complexity. While the second album expects words like “growth,” and “different directions,” Coexist is an extension of the first album’s barely-there texture—and strips it down even further: ambient vocals that yearn, liquid guitar that slices absorbed silence, drips of percussion that pulse along each song’s spine in low beats. Spaces of silence are carved into the tracks, manipulating negative space to enhance each note’s pure sound. All the fluff is cut away. With these sharp tools, the xx build their infinite atmosphere.

Minimalism spreads into lyrics as well. Croft and Sim meditate on simple themes of love, light and dark imagery. Yet ambiguity by no means creates isolated distance; when Croft’s airy vocals ache out with such honesty, the lyrics feel intimately close. Metamorphosis is another illusion the xx have perfected. In the opening verse of “Angels,” the lyrics feel plain. When Croft sighs them into motion, it feels like catharsis: “You move through the room/like breathing was easy.” At the zenith of “Missing,” amid sleepy guitar and Croft murmuring “how did I,” in swirling mantra, Sim’s raw voice rasps into a poignant ache before releasing in a gasp of guitar.

This is the captivating enigma of the xx’s music. It builds and builds and builds, and instead of combusting into climax, it blooms, pools, and exhales in a smooth breath.

That being said, there’s not much variety in these eleven tracks. Fans hoping to see a shift in sound will be disappointed. The buoyant vibe from steel drums in “Reunion,” is as dramatic and experimental as the album gets. Each track exudes the same aura—same pulses and pauses, hushed lyrics, echoing drum tracks that release into shimmering guitar. “We were just making songs that were coming out of us. There wasn't a huge, set goal for what we wanted to do,” Sim said in an interview. “We're still the same band. I'm glad it sounds like us.”2  While this album is not as diverse as the debut, it gives Coexist a fluid motion. The audience can stand in its wake and let the sound roll over them in easy tides.

It’s a known challenge going into the second album that bands are approaching an audience already familiar with their music. The freshness of the xx’s debut hinged upon its correlation of space and sound. It was a new, unique approach to music; it billowed like a veil between hemispheres of open space. Thus, the sophomore album feels more “whole” than the refreshing openness of the debut. But the xx still have their unique ingredient that sets apart their music: shape. Listeners can still slide into the geometry of the space built in Coexist’s porous tracks. While most songs today are buried beneath polished vocals and excessive layers, the xx experiment with subtraction of sound to eliminate any interference. It’s this ethereal nature that leaves the deepest impressions. With the carefully constructed ether they weave, the xx shed new light on what music is: that even silence has volume. That even empty space can be lovely and dark and filling. That landscapes of music can be both incredibly close and immensely vast.