The xx's first album was the whisper heard 'round the world, a fashionably sparse disc of distilled love songs made more powerful by their stark surroundings. The London group has seen success after success since the release of their 2009 debut, their music equally suited for soundtracking cinema as it is for trendy restaurants and, of course, clubs. Their producer Jamie xx has built an entirely separate career in the meantime, releasing tracks for Numbers and remixing an entire Gil Scot-Heron album, touting a nebulous idea of "club music" that would apparently come to define the latest xx material, which finally hits three years later in the form of Coexist.
Of course, as we've seen in his solo career, Jamie Smith's idea of "club music" is a drowsy one. That suits his band to a tee. In fact, despite the group's looming scale and ostensible increase in budget, Coexist is a smaller record than the first. It often sounds like it's hiding in a corner murmuring to itself. The booming drums are (mostly) gone, replaced by quieter implements of Smith's softly shifting garage patterns ("Chained"), or other bits of digital percussion falling and colliding in odd ways ("Fiction"). The nuggets of forward momentum that defined the first album are fewer and far between, and more driving moments like "Tide" are the few reminders that this was the band that produced such propulsive heart flutters as "Crystalized" and "Basic Space."
In fact, even more so than before, Coexist is defined by its moments of silence and spaces between. The album is coloured and shaded gently by textural accents rather than big shifts in mood, or climaxes. Little synth moans and other melodic devices are dragged across the stereo spectrum like paint, best exploited on "Reunion" where Smith smudges his trademark steel drums together until they become a blur of shimmering metal. The intertwined vocals of Romi Madley-Croft and Oliver Sims are more piercing and poignant in this harsher climate, and they're stronger, too: lilting lines largely replace the mumbling heard on the first album, emphasizing the simple strength of their R&B inspired melodies. Tracks like "Try" are bolstered by a male/female call-and-response dynamic that suddenly feels so much more forceful, Sims confessing his wrongs and Madley-Croft repeating them in the next verse. Their melodies are more confident too, with tracks like "Unfold" like hushed bulldozers, all soaring stressed syllables and unison vocals—it's the little moments that make Coexist count.
As gripping as the album is all the way through—it seems to chart an on/off relationship even more directly than their eponymous album did—its best moment is actually its first. Opener "Angels" is one of the meekest xx tracks, but it's easily among their most powerful, a solo Madley-Croft plotting her voice against a guitar that rings out into the frostbitten air. Her voice is naked and almost uncomfortably upfront, every crack and hiccup evident as she walks her way through the track's workmanlike melody. "They would be as in love with you as I am," she repeats, chanting "love, love, love" like a mantra. Put on paper it's almost pathetically transparent, grasping even. But sung in Madley-Croft's faltering croon, it's everything that makes The xx such an intriguing and addictive band.