The XX’s debut album was a surprising highlight of 2009, winning the UK group critical acclaim, a slew of awards and a whole raft of fans. The past two and a half years have, as always, seen people waiting to find out how they would respond with their second album. Would there be: more of the same, greater musical development, a change of focus, or would the fame have gone to their heads? Thankfully after listening in some detail to ‘Coexist’, we can confirm it is more the first two than the latter.
The XX have kept the form fairly consistent for their sophomore LP. The first few tracks’ sound is so familiar, you could almost believe they were left over from their debut. However, that is not to say it feels tired or repetitive. Album opener ‘Angels’ is a touchingly poignant track, built around the trademark repetitiveness of their debut album ‘xx’ but elevated by the intensely personal nature of the lyrics singer Romy Madley Croft intones over the sparse backing. Second track, ‘Chained,’ sees the same softly spoken vocals emerge over a pulsating drum beat and swirling atmospheric synth. You can’t help but again be acutely aware of the personal insight we are being given by the group as Madley Croft pleads that “we used to be closer than this” before questioning, “is that something that you miss?” This one-two hit of intensely personal songs gets the album off to a calming, reassuring start whilst highlighting just how much growing up the group has done (which also again reminds us just how young they were when they first rose to prominence.) Tracks ‘Fiction’ and ‘Try’ follow quickly and continue this cool and collected feel without developing the album much musically.
The key change occurs at the fifth track ‘Reunion’ where we start to see a few of the elements that have been inspiring Jamie xx, Oliver Sims and Madley Croft over the past three years. From this track we begin to see the group start to mess with the model they have set up so well, firstly by bringing some new sounds into their songs. “Reunion” sees Jamie xx make startling use of steelpan drum sounds to add an even more otherworldly atmosphere to that which is already present within The XX’s ethereal soundscape. Jamie xx adds the other defining element to this half of the album through the heavier presence of electronic backing which gives tracks like ‘Sunsets’ and the latter half of ‘Reunion’ a distinctly dance-music sound.
On ‘Swept Away’ the group return to their tried and tested formula (which in no way sounds formulaic) as the group’s trademark vocals float above a sparse backing with a Coldplay sounding piano riff. This is finalised with the superb ‘Our Song,’ as touching and personal a song as we have heard from The XX. With Sims and Madley Croft jointly pledging vowels of commitment to each other, we are again unable to shake the feeling that on ‘Coexist’ The XX have allowed us entry into their own personal world and it’s not without a little voyeuristic joy that we have loved listening to it.
Referred to by the group as “more mature” it is difficult to deny the change in lyrical content through this album. There is a noticeable shift from … to a more everyday perspective built around personal relationships. This is very endearing and actually makes this album more relatable to everyone, which can only serve to further expand their already considerable audience.
Some fans will be disappointed by the lack of stand out singles on this record. Whereas on ‘xx’ there were songs that would obviously appeal to the casual listener (‘VCR,’ ‘Crystalised,’ and ‘Islands’ in particular) this album gels together a lot more as a whole, with its clearly defined themes. The album would have benefitted from at least one more upbeat tracks, as it does fall into a bit of a lull around ‘Missing’ and could have used the more lively pace of tracks like those ‘xx’ ones mentioned above.
This is a superb album with a coherent sound and an amazing musical palette. In many ways it is a more mature and accomplished record than the group’s first, but in places it lacks the energy and excitement which we first saw from a group of fresh-faced 17 year olds we’d never heard of before. Most first time listeners will find this album a breath of fresh air and those of us who are already fans can rejoice in the eleven new tracks which add to this amazing group’s musical canon.