That’s Debatable: Coexist by The xx

Nixonin80: Before we dive in to Coexist, I need to take the time to state how much I thoroughly loved xx. I’m never really sure if I’m writing it correctly. The band is The xx, but the album is xx. To my understanding, that is correct. Either way, that debut album (seriously, what a debut) was sublime. I’ve never seen a band find their identity so quickly and so definitively as The xx did. They sounded like twenty year veterans who had spent their entire careers crafting this incredibly specific sound. They nailed it. I can’t think of one negative thing to say about it. It was such an interesting experience to listen to an album where the silence carries so much weight. The moments where nothing is played are every bit as powerful, if not more powerful, then the moments when gentle chords are strummed lightly. Romy Croft’s flirtatious vocals, the straightforward playful lyrics, the catchy loops- honestly, just perfect.

And it is with that in mind that I consider how doomed Coexist was to disappoint. I think any artist faces this dilemma after finding success. Do you try to create more of the same and risk becoming stale or do you try to shake things up and risk losing your identity? The xx definitely went with more of the same on Coexist, and I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think it worked. I know you’ll agree with me that the album is just missing the groove that xx found for itself. xx felt young, coy, and, dare I even say, sexy. Almost every song seemed like it was written in a dialogue of a couple whispering sweet nothings pre-, post- or even mid-coitus. Coexist doesn’t have any of that. The album gets off on the wrong foot from a thematic standpoint before we even have a chance to get to the aesthetics. Every song is about growing apart, losing touch, falling out of love, how hard it is to do these things, blah, blah, wah wah wah. So essentially, they gave us a breakup album. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as a good breakup album, I just was hoping for better from The xx. The quiet carries such weight when it is used to express the sexual tension in xx. Here, when it is used to express sorrow, it starts to seem unbearable after a while.

I’ll save more until after your response. I know you were disappointed in this outing as well. Were you expecting a bit more diversity with Jamie xx’s emerging prominence? Is it possible to pull off a good breakup album? Were The xx doomed from the start? Was xx too unique to recreate and thus any attempt to do so would fail and any attempt to be different would anger the fans? Was this a lose/lose? Tell us goldenage!

 

Goldenage: Prior to my response, here is something that deserves a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoaQzbKQVuY
Since Jamie XX is big on the electronic scene, he somehow roped electronica god Four Tet into remixing VCR. It’s a hell of a track. Check it.

 

Nixonin80: watched the video. I got to the 3:40 mark before I gave up. Given my past with that whole milieu, I thought withstanding 220 seconds was pretty impressive. I’m not too crazy on remixes. But since we are on that topic kind of, what do you think of this?

Track produced by Jamie XX. Does it even count as sampling at that point? Just genuinely want to hear your opinion.

 

Goldenage: When I first gave Coexist (why the fuck is it not Coexxist? An inexcusable missed opportunity, if you ask me) a spin, I was unimpressed. I liked xx quite a bit, but I wouldn’t go nearly as far in my praise of it as you have. It’s an album that is far from perfect with a real sense of coherence and an even, light-handed confidence. You called it sexy, I’d agree. On xx, every track adds something. The album has a clear arc, and the slight, relationship-centric narrative of the lyrics never gets stale and rarely feels contrived. Coexist has a few standout tracks that remind us why we liked xx so much, but on the whole it doesn’t live up to its predecessor in any meaningful way. While songs like “Chained” and “Fiction” are glimmers of vintage, 2009 xx, most of the tracks on Coexist are eminently forgettable. It seems as if they’re making an attempt to break new ground, explore and expand on their previous sound, and they succeed in innovating and building on their previous album in a lot of ways, with tracks like “Missing” and “Unfold” doing away with the more traditional indie pop structures, playing around with some interesting atmospheres. If their goal was simply to break out of their (successful) mold, then they’ve done so and they deserve credit for that. But I’ve just finished my fifth full listen of Coexist and still I am left yearning for the simplicity and quiet vitality of xx.

To tackle your questions, starting with the one of diversity, I think The xx have certainly made a pass at it with Coexist. And I found shadows of Jamie XX’s electronica-uber-producer credentials coming through on the album. “Swept Away” has a very two-steppy feel. A good breakup album? Sure. Beck’s Sea Change. I imagine there are hundreds of fantastic breakup albums, that is just one example that comes to mind immediately. I don’t think this was a lose/lose for The xx. Certainly it’s a challenge to follow up a successful and popular debut, as the risk of simply retreading well-worn ground is huge, and the rewards of innovating are few. With a powerhouse talent like Jamie XX in the band, though, it will be interesting to see where they go from here. This writer would like to see an even more enthusiastic embrace and application of some of his more esoteric electronic production skills.

 

Goldenage: Also, to add on about the title… if it were Coexxist, the x’s would literally be coexisting in the word coexxist. why why why did they not spell it that way.

 

Nixonin80: Touche, amigo. It seems that we’re on roughly the same page here. I may have gushed a little too much about xx with the word “perfect,” but it was an exceptional album. Like I said, it felt so innovative. I mean, they didn’t even have a drummer! All of those same tricks are here again (the hushed vocals, the emphatic silences), but they don’t feel new. They feel quite stale actually. I mentioned in my first email that the silences were empowering on xx but excruciating on Coexist. I stand by that completely. I definitely spoke too soon about making a good breakup album. I regretted that the moment I hit send. I had forgotten all about Blood on the Tracks by Bob what’s his face and Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye. I’m sure there are plenty of other excellent break up albums. I just don’t think that whole aesthetic fits The xx very well. I will use Sea Change as a comparison since it is basically regarded as the Citizen Kane of break up albums. Sea Change came about after Beck’s messy breakup with his girlfriend of nine years. The sorrow expressed in the lyrics was totally genuine and introspective. On Coexist, this an entirely imagined breakup sung by bratty British kids. I mean, I love The xx, but check out their interviews, they’re kind of brats. As a result, all of the heavy emotion that the songs try to convey fall totally flat to me. Gone are the days of frisky foreplay in xx, and here we have “It’s a shame/ That we have to play these games.” Give me “VCRs!”

I hope I’m making sense here. I think they were trying to find a happy balance between keeping their unique style but offering something different. They retained the deafening silence of their sound but bagged the adolescent lyrics. I’m good for a heartbreak song or two, but they all molded together for me. The only ones that really stuck out were “Angels” (probably the best song on there) and “Reunion.” The rest were all morose sad sad tunes with lyrics about “hearts,” “real love,” and “feelings.” Does it fall into the realm of concept though? If xx was the hormone-induced courtship, is Coexist the regretful morning after and subsequent unfolding? Does it really matter? I’m not that interested. I think they needed to get this album out of their system. Now the doors are open for them. They don’t need to live up to the standards of xx and gave fans two full albums of their unique sound. The door is open. The future is theirs.

As for the name, it is totally a missed opportunity. Does that kind of handicap them, though? Does every album then need to be a play on their name? Do we have to look forward to years of eXXistentialism (2014), meXXican standoff (2016- their attempt at all acoustic stuff), XXstacy (2018- all electronic) and Merry XXmas (2019- Christmas album)?

 

Goldenage: I think we are very much on the same page: disappointment writ large. They took the breakup album thing to a whole ‘nother level, and not in an emotionally succinct or sweetly sorrowful way. Coexist just feels (quietly) whiny. I think you’re right that they needed to get this type of music-making out of their system, and I hope that they have. As much as I was let down by their sophomore effort (the sophomore slump is real, just see Neon Bible) I can’t help but feel excited for their next release. eXXistentialism has my vote.

 

Nixonin80: Damn. I was pulling for Merry XXmas.

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