One of The xx’s greatest triumphs over the last few years is that they’ve been able to experience a particularly high level of success and acclaim despite being a somewhat unmarketable proposition. Almost every song on their eponymous debut was quiet, sparse and draped in misty-eyed, bordering-on-obsessive romanticisms whilst nigh on every photo you’ll find of Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith finds them clad in black. Regardless, critics fell in love with them and the public soon followed, so realistically, Coexist has its work cut out for it. To their credit, The xx don’t appear to be a band consumed by their own success and have taken their time in creating a follow-up, to the point where Coexist arrives with a similar kind of nervous, restrained air.
As the moody restrains of Angels gently begins proceedings, change isn’t instantly obvious. Madley Croft’s dreamy, whispered vocals still sit simply alongside her gentle, simplistic guitar melodies and the backing is even more stripped back, with Smith providing something barely resembling a beat. The subtle alterations to The xx’s sound that Coexist offers are seemingly designed to evoke a very similar feel to its predecessor; nothing will overpower you, no one instrument, melody or voice has dominance and the sombre nature of proceedings is unmistakable. If you can believe it, Coexist strips things back even further than before, with its less invasive beats slowing things down to an even more relaxed yet fragile tempo.
For the most part, this isn’t a problem at all. Part of the album’s charm is that it does force you to engage with it before it’s prepared to fully reveal itself. Sim’s soft baritone has grown more assured with adolescence despite not truly breaking free from the music it adorns, and the beats offered by Smith have mostly evolved to something more akin to dance than anything daring to call itself indie. This gives Coexist the air of a record finely crafted and pieced together slowly, deliberately and carefully.
Trouble being that this means we are treated to the steadiest of evolutions as a result. Sure, there are signs of shackles being tested; there are pleasing touches sprinkled throughout like the oddly effective steel drums in Reunion that hint at e desire to experiment and the throbbing pulse underlying the closing Our Song almost creates something bordering on epic yet it hides itself before repeating its mild crescendo. There’s almost a sense of invisible restriction stopping these songs from expansion and that ultimately makes Coexist too much of a tinkered retread.
The xx earned so much praise for its debut that they earned the right to respond how ever they wished. That they haven’t pushed their own boundaries far enough with Coexist makes this a follow up worthy of affection but not adoration. The future will tell if this decision rules The xx out of being able to provide a stirring third effort, but for the time being, their desire for evolution over revolution probably won’t win anyone else over to their bleak charms.