Frontier Psychiatrist

May Cause Drowsiness: A Review of The xx, Coexist

Posted on: September 25, 2012

The xx, Coexist

The xx, Coexist

I literally fell asleep the first time I heard the new album by The xx. If this English pop trio were a meal, they would be turkey. If they were a kind of tea, they would be Chamomile. If they were a prescription drug they would be Ambien. And so on. But beyond its soporific powers, their sophomore album might also work as the soundtrack to a low-key boutique or a café filled with “writers” on their laptops, or even as hold music while you wait for the next available customer service representative to assist you in the order that your call was received. But at the end of the day, Coexist seems like music made for the end of the night. It’s less a collection of distinct songs than a minimalist DJ set played when everyone in the club or lounge or house party is sprawled on couches, nursing one last drink before dawn.

In this way, Coexist continues the languid lullaby lounge act of The xx’s eponymous debut, released in 2009 to wide critical acclaim. Like its predecessor, the new album seems dedicated to a mellow, meditative, and moderately melancholy mood–and is an exercise in musical restraint. With its slow tempos, sparse electronic percussion, trebly single note guitar lines, whispery co-ed vocals, and the occasional blip of a steel drum –all soaked in reverb— the word ‘minimalism’ seems like an understatement. The dynamics are static: The volume never goes past three or four. And there are only a few hints of peppiness –a steel drum blip, a low-end pulse, a brief  dance between bass and snare drum. Like the second half of their band name –it seems as if this music should be spelled in lowercase.

This sort of sleepy pop is not exactly new. The xx channel the sound of such soft acts as Brian Eno, Roxy Music, and Mazzy Star, as well as any number of 80s and 90s synth pop bands. Among albums released in 2012, Co-exist’s closest cousin might be Kill For Love, the debut by Chromatics, which begins with a sparse rendition of Neil Young’s classic Into the Black a.k.a. Hey Hey, My My. But unlike Chromatics, the xx never mix up the mood: In their world, it’s all subdued, all the time.

The minimalism on Coexist doesn’t stop with the music. The cover image is a essentially the same as their first album, only instead of a white x against a black background, it’s a colorful x against a white background. The first eight songs have one-word titles; the last two have two words. And the lyrics are equally sparse and elemental.  A small child would know every word with the exception of “composure,” “closure,” “register,” and “masquerade.” Every song has two characters: the speaker (“I”) and the nameless object of affection (“you.”) And every song tells a similar story, in which the speaker aches for more closeness with a literally or figuratively distant lover. In this way, the title the album title is not a declaration, but a hope, a plea for love. Perhaps nothing is more simple, more human. Beyond its thematic signifiance, “coexist” also nods to the second half of the band’s name and its two singers, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, who share lead vocals. In reference to Baria Quereshi, the guitarist and keyboardist who left the band in 2009, it may also be an ironic goodbye.

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The xx even have a minimalist marketing plan, at least nominally. According to an article in The Guardian (UK), one day before its official release, the band leaked Coexist to one lucky London superfan –known to their marketers for his frequent Facebook posts–and let him spread the word virally. Twenty four hours later, millions of hits crashed the album’s web site, which was outfitted with a visualizer designed to represent the campaign’s reach. A marketing executive said he won’t repeat the strategy for other bands he represents since “he finds it especially suited to the sensibilities of the xx.” In other words, minimalism with maximalist results.

Maybe due to its infectious yet inoffensive ambience –songs from The xx’s debut record found their way into many television shows, movies, and even news programs –such as NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage and the BBC’s general election coverage. Tracks from Coexist may also find a home in future TV and movie spots, yet seem unlikely to be any network executive’s choice to score the Obama-Romney race. That contest seems too polarized, too heated, too fractious for music that’s resolutely sad and resolutely chill.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recently reviews include Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds and Frank Ocean’s album Channel Orange. He needs more sleep.

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2 Responses to "May Cause Drowsiness: A Review of The xx, Coexist"

The zz?

I think of this mostly as a breakup album. So many of the lyrics so swiftly transport me to a place where things are being rearranged and reassessed after a break-up. The music is a slow, languid background, but the lyrics are what are transporting me in this one. To a place of loss. Should come with a warning label…

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