xx marks the spot

With their 2009 debut, xx, London-based band the xx crafted a rich and memorable sound. With their minimal production and simple rhythms, the vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith stood out against the empty space in songs like “VCR” and “Crystalized”. With simple guitar riffs and looped GarageBand beats, the band filled in the architecture of the ballads they created. An album that could’ve sounded incomplete because of its minimalism met critical acclaim, and what the music lacked in complexity ended up filling a musical void we didn’t know existed.

On their sophomore album, Coexist, the xx continue in the sound they crafted for themselves. In the first track (and first single) on the album, “Angels”, a minimal guitar riff is the foundation. Croft’s voice coos, singing to an unknown lover or unattainable crush, and a light drum hovers in the background only when the guitars drop off. This simple three-minute track confirms the xx as the best at what they do: creating lo-fi music that plucks the heartstrings more than it plucks those of the guitar.

The album continues along a familiar path with the second song, “Chained”. Croft and Smith have a duet in the roles they’ve built for themselves in their debut: lovers caught in a quarrel, on the tail end of a relationship that feels like it’s on the brink. The two manipulate the silence in the song to lend tension to the lyrics.

Throughout Coexist, the band stays planted on their successful song formula: whispery vocals, basic drum beats, and looped guitars, with the occasional synth shaking beneath the quiet soundscape. But the most successful tracks are those in which the band experiments, even in tiny ways. The album standout, “Try”, opens with a twisting synth riff that feels extraterrestrial. It only bubbles in the background, but it’s a detail that lingers in the listener’s head and leaves the track standing beyond the rest of the material on the album.

Much like the songs on xx, the songs on Coexist feel well-designed, enough to be the soundtrack to a low-key party or a late-night candlelit dinner. However, there are moments where the songs are unvaried and indistinguishable. Towards the end of the album, songs like “Tides”, “Untold”, and “Swept Away” recycle the xx’s formula without offering anything new. The last bit of Coexist feels more sleepy than stimulating, more flat and less electric, and doesn’t offer enough for the listener to stay engaged.

Despite its missteps, Coexist is an album you can get excited about. Cold weather and autumn nights are approaching, and some of these songs feel right for brisk night walks—quiet in places so you can hear the crisp, coloured leaves beneath your feet, and satisfying enough to last you until the heart of winter.

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