Sunday, 30 September 2012

The xx - Coexist (Album Review 2012)

In 2010, the xx's début album xx won the Mercury Prize, beating Biffy Clyro, Dizzee Rascal, Foals, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons and Paul Weller. This helped bring the band, their lo-fi sparse electronic sound, and the album, to a wider audience. Now as a three-piece of Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith, the inevitable difficult follow-up Coexist is not so much progress as continuation of a working format. The difference this time is that Croft and Sim, who share vocal duties, have brought their own personal lives and memories into the song writing, while Smith provides the light touches. This makes Coexist a collection of melancholic and beautiful love songs.

Opener Angels has Madley-Croft repeating "Being as in love with you as I am" over Smith's delicate keys while Chained is a Sim-lead duet, centred on the line "We used be closer than this". Vocally the two singers intertwine, often singing different threads of the same story, providing altering perspectives and views. Gothic guitars and stark drums are added for Sim's Fiction but the early highlight is the wonderful Try with its fragile arrangement and fragmented ideas, two-part vocal harmonies and empty spaces. The backdrop for Reunion is echoing steel-drums; a song in two movements, building in the second half and concluding the story of missed opportunity and loss.

Sunset is another fine moment, like a distant phone conversation between two storytellers, or the inner thoughts as they read each other's letters, and Missing continues this approach with added drama - a neat touch is how the roles of Sim and Madley-Croft switch to compliment each other. The vibrant, yet downbeat, Tides completes this impressive trilogy and Coexist's best ten minutes. This is followed by the album's most beautiful vocal performance, Unfold, the words framed with more great guitar work and subtle production from Smith.

At five minutes, Swept Away is a hugely ambitious attempt to break away from the strict formula, creating what becomes a late high point. Two gorgeous guitar/piano instrumentals break the song into three parts. "I'm here...and I'll always be..." is another vocal masterpiece from Madley-Croft while Sim delivers "Hide away, I hide away with you...I let the world just slip away, and I'm left with you...". At the centre of the song is more love-letter interplay between the two. Closer Our Song is the only time on Coexist when the two singers are together for the entire vocal, which seems like a fitting ending.

Coexist is unlikely to make an immediate impact; it is one of those albums that needs time and repeat listens to appreciate. The xx don't go for big arrangements and layers of guitars, riffs and epic moments, and there are no obvious 'singles' (and why should there be in a world in which this is no longer important). The power of the music is in the use of space and control and Smith handles the production with deft and imaginative precision. As vocalists, Madley-Croft in particular has grown, and together the band's timing and cohesion is improved. Everything just sounds more focused and tightly constructed, embracing the minimalism ever further. Coexist is an album of character and characters, heartbreak and hope, and more importantly, being together.
-- CS

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