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Abebe: On Coexist, the xx Stay Intimate by Getting Grander

Photo: Courtesy The XX

The xx make warm, shadowy, minimalist music that consists of five distinct sounds.

Okay, that’s a lie: There are more sounds than that. Percussive samples, atmospheric blurs, assorted keyboards, and on their new album, Coexist, one striking wash of steel drums. But this might be like saying an empty room isn’t empty because there are light fixtures, and paint on the walls. In a very real way, it’s just those five sounds, and usually only two or three of them at any moment, drifting in an exacting balance:

  • Romy Madley Croft’s guitar, a very particular quiet-room tone, amplified and reverbed until the lightest touch calls forth a deep liquid sound that hangs in space for a long, long time — long enough that notes must be deployed sparingly;
  • Her voice, a husky murmur, like someone quietly announcing painful decisions; it sounds emotional enough to break, but never does;
  • Oliver Sim’s voice, which does break, and spent the English band’s debut croaking reluctantly back to Madley Croft;
  • His bass, one of many things in xx songs that are built to lurk in shadow, and do their work mostly when you’re not paying attention to them;
  • And the crisp snap and knock of the machine drums Jamie Smith arranges around them.

I mention each in turn because it feels almost staggeringly unusual, in 2012, for a band to reach relative pop success — their 2009 debut has sold nearly 400,000 copies and bewitched fans across several genres — with a palette this fixed, limited, and considered. Even the most staid of rock bands pile on different guitar textures; meanwhile, most acts with this much studio acumen thrive on being fleet-footed, able to conjure up entirely new worlds of sound every two minutes. The xx hangs eternally in a single, precious equilibrium, a fine-tuned thing that, like most minimalist art, is likely the result of endless, tiring work, nudging things carefully left and right until the ideal compositional proportions are reached: Everything in its right place, and no extraneous sounds for any imperfections to hide behind.

None of its individual parts are so shockingly new: Madley Croft’s guitar descends directly from the Cure, her singing style and haircut indirectly from Tracey Thorn, of Everything But the Girl. The group takes spiritual inspiration from Sade and Aaliyah and technical inspiration from acts like Burial, who make the same impressionistic smear out of British dance music — hollow, lonely atmospheres with a muffled spine of beats. There’s something about the xx’s precise geometry, though, that’s allowed them to claim and own these sounds, and even export them up the pop-music food chain. (Pieces of their music have been packaged into songs for stars like Rihanna and Shakira; Smith’s been called on to produce for Drake; that guitar tone’s had commercials built around it, been sent forth to move markets.) They seem as much like a distillery as they do a band. It’s difficult not to be reminded of Portishead, possibly the last English group, nearly twenty years ago, to do exactly this — combine the smallest number of moving parts and empty space; stun listeners with a dark, sensual mood; release an album simultaneously embraced into the canons of indie music, dance music, R&B, and ultimately pop; and have salesman and musicians alike clamoring after the spare parts of their style.

If I remember correctly, the main criticism of Portishead’s sophomore album was that it felt unnecessarily cold, a judgment the xx needn’t fear. The first word you’d use to describe Coexist, their second LP, is the same unavoidable adjective that shoulders its way into every discussion of this band: “intimate.” Everything about them, sonically and lyrically, conjures the image of two people alone in a room, either happily close or muttering through a crisis. The songs here double down on that — they’re all about the clutches of intimacy and the dizzying way it evaporates, leaving people who used to be impossibly close more distant than if they’d never met. This is the subject of some 90-plus percent of pop, and most of pop’s genius lies somewhere in the gap between experiencing intimacy and performing it, on well-lit stages, for vast and not remotely intimate audiences. The xx, though, have radically narrowed that gap; their songs feel like they might actually contain some of the silences and distances that get edited out and transmuted into keener feelings in something like an Adele ballad. And for most of the album, that feeling is all the listener has to cling to, since the stories themselves are told in a vague, abstracted register: simple metaphors of light and darkness, distance and time, like crude dry-erase-board graphs of human experience. Sometimes it’s maddening. Sometimes — like when Madley Croft sighs “you move through a room / like breathing was easy” — it’s eye-opening.

There’s a problem, of course, that’s going to plague any successful act peddling such pure, distinct moods — the music equivalent of spirits, extracts, or essential oils — and it’s that they have to do a huge amount of work between records: Every time out, they find themselves facing an audience that’s literally built up a tolerance for their sound. So if, on first listen, Coexist’s sound and intimacy-level strike you as unremarkably similar to that of the band’s first album, revisit that debut, and consider what a deftly played trick this is: They’ve had to become far grander, more ghostly versions of themselves just to provide the same spark of closeness that came easier the first time. The main thing that’s changed is that cheat of a fifth element, the arrangements crafted by DJ–producer Jamie Smith. To say his contributions are like the paint on this music’s walls isn’t to suggest it’s unimportant; quite the opposite. It’s what marks out the size of the space the other two exist in, and Smith’s taken this album as an opportunity to push the walls back and make that space far more impressive: Even when his drum hits and drips of ambiance are most sparing, each one’s surrounded with echo and movement that seems to trace out the far corners of a large room. He’s moved from the dry, sprightly drum-machine patter of the group’s debut to woody clicks and rumbles and two-step beats; on a few tracks, like “Swept Away,” he helps prod the band into something almost like a full-scale dance production, the kind of song you imagine they need now that they’re whispering quietly to the crowds at hangar-sized venues.

Sim’s voice also seems much improved, and more flatteringly recorded, and he takes leads more confidently. It is, on balance, a good thing, though there was something about his diffident skulking around the edges of the songs on the group’s debut you might miss; the songs’ minimalism meant he had to step into the spotlight and wither, audibly, in ways that were actually very affecting. There are forms of intimacy the band’s had to give up to expand its scope. But you can hear the value of their new skills on a track like “Unfold”: When the two singers coo in unison, they feel perfectly balanced, locked inseparably together. So do the foggy streaks of guitar and the watery drips of sound Smith’s spangled around them. Everything in its perfect, rigorous balance, arranged against a whole infinity of negative space. When Portishead released their sophomore album, there were those who grumbled that it hadn’t matched the magical, unrepeatable impact of their debut. But during the decade of silence that followed, a lot of them came around to recognize the value in what they’d been given: a sideways extension on a sound too pure and faintly perfect to mess with, and too inspired to slavishly repeat. The lesson might be applicable here.

Music Review: The xx’s Coexist