“Let it unfold.” The xx are nothing if not patient, taking years to write songs that demand repeated listens. On “Unfold”, one of the few tracks on Coexist nearly devoid of Jamie xx’s distantly recognizable thump, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim tell a putative lover/each other/us to wait for it. “Out of sight, out of mind/ Doesn’t mean you’re not mine/ The feeling goes on and on and on.” It’s been three years since The xx first wrapped us around their little finger, seducing us with XX’s sinister, sexy minimalism and then leaving us hanging with unsubstantiated rumors of a second album. But now, like an ex-lover you hope will return even though you know they’re bad for you, they’re back.
The stakes are higher this time around, and the trio approaches their sophomore album with a former underdog’s caution: Coexist surges forward and retreats within itself more than its predecessor but still never breaks the surface, existing in the liminal space between a song and a thought. “In my head/ You tell me things you’ve never said,” Madley-Croft sings again on “Unfold”, reducing a fantasy to a fully realized relationship that might not exist in real life. The xx’s skeletal beats leave room for projection, which is why listeners developed such a personal relationship with XX. “The xx album snuck up on me. I listened once and it felt like nothing much, a small, sad little handful of plinks and whispers. But I went back to it, again and again. Eventually, it destroyed me,” Grantland‘s Amos Barshad said in his recent profile of the band.
It almost destroyed me, too. I started listening to The xx following a breakup in the dead of a Minnesota winter, and now whenever I listen to XX I fill in the blanks between verses with that awful memory of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of always feeling lost and cold. “I know all the words to take you apart,” Madley-Croft and Sim harmonize on album closer “Our Song”, as though speaking directly to me. Music positively reinforces depression as much as it treats it, and songs like “Heart Skipped A Beat” took me apart with uncanny insight into my own shortcomings as a girlfriend. But then, of course, Madley-Croft promises to “mend your heart.” If lovers are our better halves, The xx build them up and break them down like Jenga towers — or, in this case, me — perpetually hoping to find answers to their own flaws.
They don’t get any closer to finding those answers on Coexist, but at least they’re older and ostensibly wiser. “My heart is beating/ In a different way/ Been gone such a long time/ Don’t feel the same,” Sim sings at the lip of “Missing”’s abyss while Madley-Croft ululates from a deeper and darker hall of mirrors. He’s not the same; none of them are. During the bridge, his own wails — no more indoor voices — are reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s recent organ-backed vibrato on “Bad Religion”. Of course it’s just an echo, because they’re still The xx, but it’s a shadowy demonstration that the vocalists are starting to do their research as much as Jamie xx obviously does his.
He draws from fellow London producer Kode 9 and his Hyperdub ilk for the doom-bap of “Try”, overlaying the lethargic traps with eerily looped, whistling synthesizers. Then, he segues somewhat incongruously through an extended fade-out into the steel drums — I’m telling you, it’s a whole new xx — that open “Reunion”, which pulses with a 4/4 derivative of moombahton before coalescing into a more generic thump by the song’s finish. The transition to “Sunset”, the heart of the album, goes more smoothly, the two songs locking together like an extended mix rather than a world music mashup. Jamie xx indie-streams these house varieties like Madonna mainstreamed vogue, slowing down and alienating beats from their context so they’re even more universal, unobscured by their dance floor origins.
Jamie’s first and most persistent calling card has been his work with Gil Scott-Heron; the two found a symbiosis on We’re New Here, but you could still tell who did what. While little, if any of Coexist can be directly attributed to that, “Swept Away” comes the closest. Madley-Croft and Sim chime in before Jamie lets loose a breakbeat that dominates for a few verses. It’s also the closest the album gets to a dance track. On the other end of Jamie’s production spectrum, “Tides” is more sophisticated, if not as immediately accessible, as “Swept Away”. It’s cinematic, opening again with just Sim and Madley-Croft’s voices before a swath of violins and clanking synthesizers carry a Latin-flavored beat.
“Chained” and “Fiction” are closer to The xx of XX, with a simmering bass line and clean, tortured guitars behind their signature regret-laden observations of a relationship gone to shit. “We used to be closer than this,” they sing, “torn apart by the break of day.” These moments reveal the subtleties that distinguish the new xx: vocals louder and clearer in the mix and instrumentals lower and heavier, making the tinny beats of “Basic Space” and “Night Time” sound pedestrian by contrast. With that higher production value and the simple act of matriculation, The xx are slowly but surely becoming their better halves. Hopefully they won’t leave us in the lurch for another three years.
Essential Tracks: “Tides”, “Sunset”, and “Swept Away”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz: