In the first minutes of Coexist, the second full length LP from English indie-pop group The xx, Romy Madley-Croft sings painfully, “When the end comes too soon, it’s like dreaming of angels, and leaving without them.” While it is undeniably a beautiful line in its own, the real weight of the lyric takes some considerable time to set in, just as the album takes time to grow in the ears. The remarkable collection of emotions that make up Coexist tell the story of dark, dysfunctional love–a story that often becomes hard to follow, and barely even comes together in the end.
After the release of their debut album in 2009, The xx slimed down to just three members when second guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi was reportedly asked to leave the group, leaving only producer/percussionist Jamie Smith and the guitar/bass, vocal duo of Madley-Croft and her co-founder, Oliver Sim, behind.
Smith, known widely by his stage name Jamie xx, has made a big name for both himself and the group as a producer and DJ since 2009, by delivering highly sought-out DJ sets and coining renowned remixes for legendary acts such as Radiohead and Gil Scott-Heron (the latter of which even spiraled into a Jamie xx-produced title track from Drake’s newest LP, Take Care). Smith’s unique/just the right amount of out-there style has made him a rising star in the music industry, catapulting The xx along with him as well.
The group’s debut LP, xx, was well-received by both critics and listeners, filling up airwaves anywhere from parties and clubs to films and commercials. The seductive, and seriously catchy anthems were enticing, but different–a full-blown pop group that didn’t really sound like a pop group at all. And soon enough, their obvious capability for both exciting and sexy songwriting began leaving much to be anticipated for their follow-up effort in 2012.
More than anything else, Coexist is sonically masterful–the definition of minimalism mixed with so much disdainful emotion that the thin sounds often feel like they are creeping through your arteries on the way to the eardrum. But with this improved sonic poignancy came a new drum formula as well. The old electro-pop feel from the debut album was tossed aside for a new, Jamie xx-inspired take on minimalistic house music, only throughout the LP, there is barely a hint of consistency or reliance on the percussion.
Drums tend to come and go at random, songs transform half-way through with new rhythms, and half the time there just aren’t any drums, relying on Sim’s bass lines and Madley-Croft’s guitar for rhythm. Coexist plays much more as a haphazardly designed album than xx, leaving the catchy, pop song formulas behind and randomizing the experience more–equipping the listeners more properly for thought and reflection than dancing and contraception, if you will.
That being said, the group has spoken out about “not trying to make people dance” on this collection, and that’s definitely not a bad thing–it’s just very different than their first work. The buzz-worthy xx drew emotion from the deeply melodic instrumentation and the undeniable rhythms, but this time, the heartbeat of Coexist comes from the emotion layered into the vocal performances of Madley-Croft and Sim. Their back-and-forth song style, layered melodies and often-exasperated lyrics drain the playful fun from the music, but replace it with a strange, damaged, and most importantly, genuine take on love.
The album follows the story of a broken relationship, going from unsure passion to a distasteful breakup very quick, and then struggling to reunite and rebuild the inevitable bond. The first single, ‘Angels’, is an elegant, melodic masterpiece featuring Madley-Croft alone on the vocals, singing with distain about a perplexing head-over-heels relationship. When she sings, “If someone believed me, they would be as in love with you as I am”, it’s hard to guess whether or not that is a good thing, but as she nears the end of the chorus, repeating, “In love, in love, in love”, again and again, suddenly the beauty becomes obvious. And so goes the album, unsure but deeply passionate, determined to try everything possible to either hold something together, or pick up the pieces after it has broken.
After ‘Angels’, everything begins to unravel quickly. In the next track, ‘Chained’, a textbook-xx baseline weaves around dark and upset lyrics (“Separate or combined, I ask you one more time”). And then moments later, everything is completely apart and Sim is singing, “Never, not ever again” in ‘Reunion’, the half calm, and half house-drum-laced ode to a painful reintroduction.
The mood finally begins to change with ‘Sunset’, a quick moving, catchy love-ballad that reminds of the group’s first album. Madley-Croft reaches her lyrical highpoint here, with sorrowful, emotional words for her lost companion (“It’s like the sun set in your eyes, and never wanted to rise”), before giving way to a standout performance from Sim on the next track, the quietly exceptional ‘Missing’. He softly sings, “Tell me how did this come to be?” and, “Now there’s no hope for you and me”, before laying some very-impressive backing vocals as Madley-Croft quietly finishes the song by asking back, “Do you still believe in you and me? Or were we all we could be?”
The tale continues late into the album, with the repair beginning during ‘Unfold’, another soft ballad that serves as a good example of the new style of Coexist. The song easily could have exploded into a catchy guitar and bass anthem, like many of the hits from xx, but it doesn’t. It remains calm and introspective throughout, with sparse, quiet drums and heavy lyrics. The album then finishes with another quiet, rhythmic gem in ‘Swept Away’ and then ‘Our Song’, where the reuniting seems to be in full force, but still somewhat-strangely intentioned (“There’s no one who knows me like you do, what I’ve done you’ve done too”).
Coexist is puzzling throughout, but after a few listens, the eccentricities begin to become obvious and the emotion of the entire body of work really begins to gain momentum. The pain in the words of Sim and Madley-Croft becomes increasingly astounding, letting the true emotions seep farther and farther through the speakers with every listen. And when Madley-Croft sings about “dreaming of angels and leaving without them”, it seems that amongst the up-and-down stories, the beautiful melodies, and the resentful despise, Coexist is really just a statement of fear, told through the twisted love story that Madley-Croft and Sim chose to blame it on.
Is fear the right thing to write an album about? Who knows. But yay or nay, The xx stayed true to the direction throughout their sophomore effort–battling against the bad when it’s good, and when it’s bad, fighting off the worse. The haunting allure of the instrumentation sets a perfectly fearful tone for the lyrics, and the emotional depth makes up for the often-obvious lack of fun.
For better or worse, Coexist it is quite a body of work. Madley-Croft, Sim, and Smith definitely proved their ability to make beautiful music once again, but also stepped out to prove their capability to change directions with their tunes. And while Coexist isn’t exactly a conventionally exciting statement for the future, sometimes the bands with a real capability for change are the ones that stick around and become the most exciting in the long run. But for now, the only thing that seems certain is, at their current one-album-per-three-year rate, The xx plan on making everyone really wait to find out.
Written by Andrew Judson Heindel
OurVinyl | Contributor