“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”
– Leopold Stokowski
If you asked most people what they liked about The xx’s debut album, you’d probably get answers that talked about the space between the noise, their R&B influences, the delicate nature of their music and how they created some big moments from discrete arrangements. Romy, Oliver and Jamie’s limited palette was a huge attraction of the first album, its dim glow was all the brighter when it was surrounded by lots of much busier music at the time it was released three years ago.
So how did The xx move on from that landmark minimal brooding pop album? By removing even more elements from their stripped-back sound. Coexist is even more skeletal than you might expect. Rather than follow up with songs that have ended up as singalongs at festivals this summer, ‘Crystalised’ and ‘VCR’ for example, the second album follows more in the vein of first album track ‘Fantasy’, a ghostly apparition of a song. Much of Coexist follows that pattern, a mood that is more prevalent and in tune with what’s going on musically right now (think Holy Other’s Held, Nicolas Jaar, Julia Holter ) rather than out of step as they were when they first appeared.
Yet still the production is even more threadbare than before, the songs hang on Jamie xx’s pared-back beats and it’s his touches which stand out the most on the album due to variation, in the beats of ‘Fiction’, the steel pan / Burial shuffle of ‘Reunion’ and the garage beats of ‘Swept Away’. That’s not to say that Romy and Oliver aren’t contributing. At the front, they create the sensual tension with lyrics about absent, yearned for love, of times past and present effectively.
But, if you were looking for some advancement in the vocal department, their dueling pleasant mumbles won’t cause too many surprises. They are effectively set to the somewhat dour (and yes brooding) atmosphere in the lyrics and vocals and there are less melodies likely to be singalongs, save for the “ooh-oh-oooh” in ‘Chained’, a song which is probably the closest to the poppiest moments on their debut.
The guitars are used more sparingly also, the songs are more downtempo overall, practically crawling along with just gossamer beats, some background synth and voice only so the guitars are rarely the player of the main melody, Jamie’s electronic experience as both a DJ and a producer on remixes and Gil-Scott Heron place the emphasis on those sounds more than the indie-pop guitar strains that dominated the debut.
Coexist then finds a young band, retreating further into the darkness, rather than refining the sound that made them. They are hardly playing it safe, and the album is a magnetising one, that asks for lots of time to get to know it. But it’s not an easy one and depends more on the circumstance of listening. It’s one for headphones, it’s one for big soundsystems where you can actually feel and hear the space between the skeletal silence.