It’s over two years since indie darlings The xx won the Mercury Prize with their debut album xx, yet the storm of hype surrounding them has been maintained as many people questioned how the follow-up would sound. It seems that the answer is pretty much the same. While many expected Coexist to follow the more dance-inspired direction Jamie Smith took with his side project as Jamie xx, the album actually sticks with The xx’s general mantra of less is more.
xx demonstrated perfectly that music doesn’t have to be over-the-top to stand out, with understated tracks where minimalist production (consisting of sparse guitar, keyboard and drums) is intricately woven around the dual vocals of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft. Three years later and one band member down (keyboardist Baria Qureshi left for undisclosed reasons), and Coexist seems to exhibit limited stylistic change. On first listen, the opening track and first single, Angels, sounds like it could have fitted quite happily on xx as well. With ostinato guitars through the verses and distant chords in the chorus, the focus is always placed on Croft’s lilting vocals. After repeat listens you do begin to notice an evolution in The xx’s sound, however. The aforementioned vocals are much stronger and sound more confident than anything on the debut, and though scattered sparsely throughout the track the percussion is much tighter and more professional sounding, applied with almost clinical precision.
In fact, while The xx often avoid use of percussion (they probably consider it too loud and adventurous) it does provide several of the albums highlights. For example on Swept Away, where Smith really goes to town, creating a backing track which gradually builds and then decays with multiple percussion layers to create a sub-bass fuelled track with clear 2-step influences. Or on Chained, where syncopated drum rhythms and smooth sustained synths compliment Sim and Croft’s vocals: “We used to be closer than this, is it something you miss?”
And here we reach another of the album’s strong points. I always enjoy a band with two (or more) lead vocalists as there’s so much potential for experimentation, but The xx really struck gold with their combination. Croft’s light tones seem to perfectly compliment Sim’s gruffer, lower-pitched voice, and this is employed to full effect throughout Coexist. Be it on Chained again, where the two begin competing before joining together at the end, or on Tides where they duet throughout, both singers put their talents to great use.
The only real problem I have with Coexist is that it will inevitably be compared to xx. The massive critical acclaim that album received was well deserved, and the follow-up couldn’t help but suffer ‘second album syndrome’ because as a result. I listen to Coexist expecting perfection; unsurprisingly it never quite gets there. Some tracks (Sunset, Angels, Tides) feel slightly too close to The xx’s old material, while others attempt to alter the formula slightly but lead me to think they’ve changed too much. Sure, steel pans worked brilliantly in Smith’s solo material, but they feel slightly out of place on Reunion, while the high-pitched synths in Try feel a bit too over-the-top to be on an xx track.
Coexist is a brilliant album, and if it were The xx’s first none of these things would be problems, but it isn’t and so they are. The xx’s sound has changed, but luckily in a majority of cases that change is very much like their music: beautifully subtle.
Favourite tracks: Chained, Missing, Swept Away
Least favourite track: Try