If you hated "xx," the xx's haunting, Mercury Prize-winning 2009 debut, don't bother listening to their follow-up, "Coexist." The U.K. trio of Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have a popular formula -- Madley-Croft and Sim quietly sing about the rawest moments of love and sex, and Smith provides sparse, percussion-based backing tracks -- and they're not straying from it. And why should they? "xx" was a stunningly formed opening statement, exhibiting some of the most stirring duets of the past decade. Sonically, the band drew on influences as varied as Portishead and Aaliyah, while sounding like no one else before or since.
The xx's first album included like "VCR," "Crystalised" and "Heart Skipped A Beat" that made an instantly profound impression on unfamiliar listeners, and "Coexist" simply does not. But the group's sophomore effort contains moments that sneak up on the listener, and may ultimately, after spending some time soaking in its dimly lit elegance, prove to be the more rewarding LP. The differences between the two discs are as subtle as the distinction between the two giant "X's" on their respective album covers -- Smith certainly takes more risks on uptempo (well, uptempo for the xx) songs like "Sunset" and "Swept Away," and Sim sounds like a more confident vocalist on tracks like "Fiction." Most noticeably, many of these 11 tracks are more patient in revealing their primary hooks: a song like "Reunion," for instance, would have stood out on "xx" for its mid-song refrain reveals and transformation into a gloomy dance track, but that even temper is an integral part of "Coexist."
After a three-year break, the xx is back to making hypnotic music with programmed drums, thin guitar solos and ruminations of cracked ecstasy. If "Coexist" takes longer to cozy up to than "xx," that doesn't necessarily mean there's been a drop-off in quality. This album is one that begs to be lived with for a long period of time, its quiet details given ample room to germinate.
Which tracks on "Coexist" are our favorites? Check out this track-by-track breakdown of the xx's latest full-length.
Romy Madley-Croft takes lead for the first and most immediate song, a viscous showcase of her quietly yearning emotion. She compares a too-short relationship to "Dreaming of angels, and leaving without them" -- an image that lingers long after the song ends.
Each movement, each cooing noise, each shimmering cymbal is precise on "Chained." The couple laments their distance before a short guitar solo breaks up the narrative.
3. Fiction - Now it's Oliver Sim's turn, as his tale of romantic illusions shimmies over a nearly industrial drum arrangement. Blink and you'll miss the catharsis at the 1:45 mark.
4. Try - A guitar line oscillates uncomfortably in place and provides a backbone for "Try," which, as the title suggests, attempts to conjure hope and functionality. The song feels a little too short -- it's strong at 3:17, but stretched out, it could have been the album's centerpiece.
5. Reunion - "Did I… see you… see me… in a new light?" goes the aching refrain, as the pangs of a steel drum slowly morph into a rhythmic dance segment.
6. Sunset - After the pulsating beat of "Reunion" perfectly slides into "Sunset," Madley-Croft and Sim share broken fragments of the pain of ex-lovers forced to act like strangers. The killer bass solo can't overshadow one of the most powerfully rendered tracks on "Coexist."
7. Missing - Madley-Croft's voice echoes in the distance as Sim pleads, "Tell me how did this come to be." Then, they trade places, and Sim wails over the stately keyboard flourishes. Interesting composition, but not as effective as it needs to be.
8. Tides - Sounds wash in and out as both vocalists sing, "You leave with the tide," resigned to never having their partner's full attention. There are a lot of elements here -- lock-step percussion, hints of string instruments, a lonely guitar line -- that fall in place impressively.
9. Unfold - Both singers' words pierce the black sheen of "Unfold," and require multiple listens to sink in. The "chorus" is little more than the voices of Madley-Croft and Sims, who let out a sumptuous "Oh!" to snap themselves awake.
10. Swept Away - Within five minutes, fragile declarations of love lead to surprisingly popping percussion that sounds like nothing else on the album. The rest of the instrumentations takes its cue and ratchets up, creating an intoxicating and full piece of production.
11. Our Song - An almost sweet joint confessional: each word flutters from Madley-Croft and Sim simultaneously, and then things end abruptly, as if they have caught us listening to their hushed beauty.