2009 was a big year for spacious music. Over those 12 months, the Antlers lulled us with fragile sadness on Hospice, JJ smoked us up with woozy Afropop on jj n° 2, and Neon Indian bared his chill-wave soul on his debut album, Psychic Chasms. The year wasn’t all about empty space—Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion serve as exhibits A and B of 2009 also containing music that was chock full o’ stuff—but a bunch of bands embraced openness in their sounds. And no band did this better than the English electro-pop group the xx.
The xx’s self-titled debut LP, released in August of that year, made an instrument out of the absence of sound. Armed with a drum machine, some sparse guitar and bass parts, and two vocalists, the four 20-year-olds offered 11 tracks swaddled in a sexiness that was both intimate and aloof. Romy Madley Croft’s sad R&B-influenced whisper made every line sound like pleading pillow talk, while Oliver Sim, with his craggy sing-speak, served as the creeper in the corner, interrupting the somber fantasy. The album didn’t really spawn massive “hits,” but “Islands” and “Basic Space” were two of its best. The former stood out for being the only track you might be able to dance to, while the latter used lyrics like “I think I’m losing where you end and I begin” to seduce you into remembering it. On its new album, Coexist, the xx is less sexed up, more subdued (no “Islands” here). Madley Croft is still singing with bedroom eyes, but here she shows us that bedrooms are also good for something else: sleeping.
The xx has always walked a fine line between seductive and snoozy. As Carrie Brownstein said in 2009 on All Songs Considered, after listening to an xx song, “I’m glad I’m already out of bed because if I was in bed, I would never want to get out of bed.” One of the band’s biggest strengths is its restraint—and one of its biggest weaknesses is its restraint. And while the xx allowed itself to get mildly playful on its debut album, those moments are stripped out on Coexist as the band further minimizes its already minimalist approach. The editing is especially surprising and disappointing after hearing the liveliness that Jamie xx, the now-trio’s production-savvy member, injected into his side projects, like the single “Far Nearer” or his work with Gil Scott-Heron. The only things that Jamie xx seems to have toted with him to this new xx album are his steel drums, found in abundance on “Reunion.”
These exercises in restraint do sometimes result in moments of barren beauty. Lead track “Angels” finds Madley Croft singing about love to the tune of a watery guitar. “And every day, I am learning about you/The things that no one else sees,” she says. None of the xx’s songs, on this album or the debut, match this one in tenderness. “Chained” steps up the rhythm and moves the album into breakup territory, with Madley Croft and Sim lamenting, “We used to be closer than this.” The singers most often operate as a tag team, taking turns in voicing their struggles with hurt feelings, and there are a lot of those on Coexist. On “Sunset,” the pair deals with running into the other half of a failed relationship (“When I see you again/And I’m greeted as a friend/It is understood/That we did all we could”); on “Try,” they’re considering giving things another go (“And if we try once more/Would you give me it all?”); and by the time we hit the closer, “Our Song,” it seems like they’ve worked things out (“There’s no one else/Who knows me/Like you do”).
This thematic back-and-forth of should we or shouldn’t we get back together is one of the biggest distinguishing characteristics between Coexist and The xx; if the debut was an album about sex and anticipation, this one is about love and its aftermath. So what’s the lesson here? That songs about sex are more interesting than songs about love? Maybe. Maybe that anticipation is what gave the band’s songs, so steeped in understatement, a bit of tension and a driving force. That expectancy is gone on Coexist, and all we’re left with are some muddy lyrics about exes. And with the absence of sound accentuated even further, we’re not dealing with titillating suspense anymore—just a silent void.