By Tommy Greene
For a while now it has been clear that The xx’s follow-up to their Mercury Prize-winning debut was going to be something of a make or break. Would they prove worthy of the universal acclaim with which they were first met, or were they going to recede into one fleeting but stylish moment in time? Indeed, between a deluge of awards; tour dates; the exit of guitarist Baria Qureshi and Jamie xx’s side-projects – such as the brilliant reworking of Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here in 2011 – the appearance of a second album did seem in doubt.
But if this release proves one thing, it is that the trio are not content with simply living off the acclaim they received for their eponymous debut.
In Coexist, simple guitar, bass lines and Sim and Madley-Croftly’s softly yoking vocals and atmospheric beats still form the basis of The xx’s distinctively sparse and minimal sound. And certainly, on first listen, due to the expectation the album raised, you may almost feel duped. Coexist doesn’t easily arrive at any discernible crescendo, hook line or end-point. No real stand-out single presents itself – although “Sunset” comes closest – but, like the title of eighth track, “Tides” suggests, Coexist’s constituent parts flow. They hover and float, lost in their own time and space. The individual compositions subtly form a beautiful whole, and this is the quiet power of the album.
Coexist reaches its stride during the haunting beauty of “Fiction”. In the siren-like sample underpinning “Try”, the steel drums of “Reunion” and in the faint four-on-the-floor beat that drives “Swept Away”, the technically gifted direction of the band’s maestro, Jamie, becomes apparent. The confident and invitingly slow guitar line of “Unfold” is indicative of the shift the band as a whole has made from the adolescent posturing of xx.
One respect in which Coexist certainly betters xx is in its production. It is more inventive, and the album has far more depth than its, at times, glib counterpart (for that is how the album’s title asks us to understand this work). Although the somewhat abrupt ending to the album may leave some cold, Coexist’s understated structure expertly sustains interest and allure for repeated listens.
Following the unprecedented success of their first outing, it was always going to be difficult for this album to equal the popularity of its predecessor. But that is not to deny Coexist its due credit. This is a more mature and accomplished work, even if it is not garlanded with as much praise or granted as much air time. The xx’s second studio creation passes its test with some aplomb, and importantly, they did it in their own distinctive, sophisticated, quietly confident manner.