‘Can’t debut twice’: the xx’s ‘Coexist’

Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft of the xx, an electronic London pop group, give vocal purpose and depth to Jamie Smith’s crisp electronic drum beats and rippling guitar melodies. Their sound is solemnly playful as the two exchange lyrics, taking conversational turns and talking over one another as they discuss the struggles and questions of an intimate relationship.
The xx was well received with their self-titled debut album in 2009. They ranked highly on “best of” lists compiled by The Guardian, Rolling Stone and New Music Express, and have performed at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. In short, they gained a lot of fame for a band whose sound exemplifies shyness and hesitant humility. But even the most successful groups can’t debut twice, and the xx illustrates the need for future versatility in both sound and subject matter in their second studio album, “Coexist”.
In “Angels”, Madley-Croft’s voice dives beautifully through tidal percussion and comes out clearly and boldly, promising a powerful album to follow. This leads quietly into “Chained,” which fulfills this promise with commanding vocals over pulsating drums and keyboard. The song reaches thematically as both singers question their own faults with a bold vocal execution. This dynamic comes again in “Try” with a desperation that demands awe. The keyboard and guitar melodies come in waves punctuated by clear-cut percussion as they accompany a conversation about wishes and what-ifs.
However, while this subject matter pairs well with the group’s unique sound, it almost depends on the minimalistic and bare use of instruments to maintain effect. And because both sound and subject are so limited, the songs eventually become redundant. The medium soon begins recycling old messages in formulaic lyrics. “Coexist” seems to predict the possibility of this thematic regurgitation and counteracts with desperate pauses in already weak tracks like “Fiction,” “Reunion” and “Unfold.” The songs try to create suspense but never actually deliver. These hesitant vocals and monotonous rhythms interrupt everything the other tracks try to contribute to the conversation. One of the xx’s great talents is their ability to make repetition exciting, and it’s disappointing that they refused us this gift on almost half of their new tracks.
Fortunately, the album’s stronger tracks alone create a compelling discussion. “Missing” comes back with dynamic volume and echoing vocals as Sims proclaims, and repeats, “My heart is beating in a different way.” The electronic rhythms pair with struggling, whispering vocals to literally breathe life back into the whole album. Sims continues to sing louder with Madley-Croft’s subtle support in the background until they switch unexpectedly. Their playful and pleading back-and-forth leads into “Tides,” where the duo’s singing alternates and comes together in throbbing, orchestrated dialogue. The track dips in and out of rhythmic waters as they sing in unison, “You leave with the tides / and I can’t stop you leaving.”
They come back again in “Swept Away,” treading breath-heavy vocals and undulating keyboard with crisp, quick electronic drum beats. The album finishes with the hymnal “Our Song,” synthesizing their conflicting discussion with the confession that “the walls I / hide behind / you walk through.”
The xx have potential for future success, because they have a lot of room to grow. Their instrumental chemistry creates a space with infinite possibility, but their conversation limits itself to the repetition of their first album.