It’s been a couple of weeks since The xx’s new album, Coexist, dropped, and it’s something you’re going to be listening to over and over again. Not because it’s an award-winning work of art or full of radio hits, but because it’s an album that takes numerous listens to get a feel for it. That’s The xx’s style established by their first album: every time you listen to their music, it changes; sometimes you connect to it and sometimes you don’t. This experience, along with their personal lyrics mixed with simple melodies, is what gave the British indie-pop trio popularity with their self-titled debut. But despite the power and musical development The xx has achieved over the past three years, their sophomore album doesn’t quite reach the standards of their first.
At first listen of Coexist, you notice that a hauntingly minimal sound replaces the band’s previously captivating dream-like skeletal music. Hardly above a whisper, Romy Madley Croft’s voice aches with tender emotion burning in every word, while Oliver Sim drones on with sorrow. A lot of the instrumentals have the echoing feel of being played in a dark, empty room, which adds to the overall lonely, broken-hearted depression dripping from track to track. Because of the melancholic atmosphere created by the combination of whispered vocals and mellow instrumentals, this album will alternate between something you put on to fade into the background, and music you completely submerse yourself in to connect with the heartfelt lyrics and sounds.
The album begins with “Angels,” a repetitive, melodic song setting the tone for the entire album to that of hushed, poetic confessions about love and longing. In the same way that the lyrics claim “You move through the room / Like breathing was easy,” the first song flows through your ears, leaving high expectations for an album similar to that of The xx’s debut. With little disappointment, “Chained” follows with a quiet heartache beating with the repetitive, “We used to be closer than this.” The more upbeat melody is reminiscent of the band’s older work. But with the sudden end to the song, there is shift in the sound and the difference between the two albums grows more apparent.
Heart-aching tracks “Try,” “Reunion,” “Sunset,” and “Swept Away” all display the new blended sounds of the band as they softly combine vocals and instrumentals with some club and house influences. Irresistible, alien-like sounds vibrate throughout “Try” which then stumbles into an introduction of steel drums in “Reunion.” About halfway through this song, the mood switches from Caribbean relaxation to a sedated, electronic club beat. An extremely smooth transition, both in sound and content, then begins “Sunset.” The distinct drum beat surges through your body and in spite of the rest of the album being decent background music, this melody is bold enough to capture your attention once more. There is an intense play between the vocals and instruments, and the emotion spills from every syllable in Madley Croft’s vocals. A few tracks later, “Swept Away” starts off delicately before quickly transforming into the most club-influenced piece. It’s the song that will have you tapping your feet and swaying your head, with an intricate blend of duet vocals, instrumentals, and a pulsating rhythm.
This development in The xx’s sound is what leads to the slight disappointment in Coexist. There was something beautiful about how uncomplicated their sound was on the first album: mostly bare-bone vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. And while The xx’s music is still minimal, the minor difference caused by a stronger emphasis on electronic influences isn’t bold enough to improve a sound that didn’t need to change. Instead, The xx timidly glanced in a new direction for their music, unnecessarily tweaking what they knew already worked. Taught by the first album, there’s a depth to the band’s music that can only be found if searched for, so there’s no doubt that the heartbroken lyrics of Coexist could have been successfully explored in the same manner as the love-strung words were before, all club beats aside.
But this doesn’t make Coexist a bad album. The changes they made were done well; the music just doesn’t hold the same overall power as on the self-titled xx in its revamped minimal sound. And despite the few spots were Coexist fumbles, The xx’s hauntingly romantic music and lyrics still call for repeated listens due to its skeletal style, which is what got them fame in the first place. It’s far from the end for this band, and the way that the heartache-filled album turns around to end on a love-story based “Our Song” proves this. There’s still hope left. It’s just a matter of a young band learning when to refine their skills and when to try something new.