Review Summary: The XX take on the club scene and make it their own.
The XX caused a very subtle storm with their debut album, XX, which won the Mercury prize 2010. When Sim described the sound of the upcoming album as inspired by “club music”, I must say I was apprehensive. I loved Jamie XX’s remix of Gil-Scott Heron as much as anyone, but how would the ethereal, reverb-tinged dream pop that XX meekly revealed combine with club music?
Very well, apparently.
Coexist is very much a showcase for Jamie in that respect – the beats are higher in the mix, clearly club-inspired, and diverse, ranging between the steel drums of ‘Reunion’, the Burial-esque underwater pulsing of ‘Chained’, the Dubstep-tinged cuts of ‘Missing’, and the trance layers of ‘Swept Away’. However, these changes are hardly isolated, while the guitar sound remains similar, the vocals and the bass have grown around this new backbone to produce a long list of songs which are mature and musically developed.
Sim also has much more of an influence in this album: the bass lines are higher in the mix and much more interesting in their own right, driving tracks such as ‘Swept Away’, underpinning ‘Tides’ with a latin influence and positively dominating ‘Sunset’ with what can only be described as a riff. Moreover, his vocals are louder and more complex, and for the first time he is given the chance to carry the vocal line on his own, while Madley-Croft’s fragile intensity remains unassuming and held back. The interplay of the vocals, which raised XX into the realms of serenity, are constructed in a manner which suits the content of the album, that is to say, love and the intensity of emotion that goes unsaid. While the earlier tracks are constructed on passing the vocals between Sim and Madley-Croft, as the album progresses their own characteristic, low harmony becomes increasingly prominent, implying a narrative that ties the album together.
The whole sound of the record is more physically present, more sure of its own existence and purpose. The club analogy goes deeper than musical technicalities in this case – Coexist presents itself with a great deal more confidence. The vocals are heavier, the guitars more definite, and the style built on a self-contained fixity of purpose that fits much more into the culture of club music than one might initially realise.
This is, of course, different to the previous album. While applause is due for pulling off this change and broadening their appeal even further, The XX do lose something in the transition. When discussing their upcoming concert with the BBC Philharmonic (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/19420873), Sim said that “There’s a lot of space in our music and we don’t want to fill it,” and while I reserve judgement on that concert, which I think will be interesting from a whole range of viewpoints, this doesn’t necessarily hold up for the new album. While there are definitely moments of intense emptiness, emotionally and musically, ‘Angel’ being the obvious choice, followed by ‘Missing’ and ‘Unfold’, and their music remains restrained – an adjective which truly defines the group – most of the songs seem much more… full. This is most probably due to the style of beat that underpins the album, and this subtle change of attitude, which drive it forwards, instead of allowing it to sit back. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, ‘Missing’ and ‘Tides’, groove wonderfully, but it changes the sound on a basic level, which may disappoint fans of the minimalist style of the debut album.
Coexist is a definite step towards a different sound, that, whilst it remains in the same vein as XX will most definitely change how the band is viewed. This reviewer believes the change is for the better, staving off the stagnation that always beckons ambient, soulful music, and has resulted in a complex, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable piece of music.