The xx – Coexist
The xx’s debut benefited from the fact that it sounded like little else at the time of its release. This isn’t to say it was without precedent: xx is steeped in familiar sounds, both old and new, combining ethereal dream pop and the claustrophobic precision of post-punk with touches of dubstep and R&B. Nevertheless, while that album was always reminiscent of other artists, the band mixed and matched those styles in a way that felt fresh and unique. Moreover, they had the gall and the smarts to strip their sound to the bare essentials, refusing to go for easy club hooks and emphasizing space and silence in a way that distinguished them from their peers. To their credit, the group doesn’t try to do anything radically different on their 2012 follow-up, Coexist. The album features the same basic xx sound, but the group is more assured and confident, and they take a more streamlined approach. They go over each song with a scalpel, slowing down tempos, burying some elements down in the mix, cutting others out entirely, shifting the focus to Jamie xx’s subtle yet detailed production. It’s not uncommon on Coexist to hear little else besides Romy Madley-Croft or Oliver Sim’s vocals (which sound lovelier here than ever) and a gentle percussion or guitar track to back them up, the whole thing doused with a healthy dose of reverb to add to the album’s barely-there quality. Sometimes this barebones technique leads to some nice dramatic tension in the music, like how “Try” abruptly breaks away from its howling siren riff to quiver with hushed keyboards and gently plucked guitars, or how the floor drops out from under Sim and Madley-Croft as “Unfold” closes out. And because so much of the record relies on atmospherics, it’s worth noting that throughout the album, Jamie xx once again proves himself to be a producer of significant talent, navigating these dark, sinewy arrangements with ease and intuiting just where in the mix everything should land. That being said, the downside to Coexist‘s skeletal songwriting is that it results in a slighter album than the xx’s debut. With such deliberate minimalism, the group may have created something delicate and affecting, yet it’s a record that’s both less substantial and less diverse than xx since most of the songs here work within the same limited parameters—and with diminishing returns. This isn’t a huge issue, especially considering how well-crafted these songs are, but when “Swept Away” kicks in with the record’s only genuine dance beat, it’s revelatory in a way that only serves to remind how static the rest of the album can sound. Even so, if fans are simply looking for another shot of the xx’s singularly icy beauty, then Coexist offers more than its fair share.