When The xx’s debut self-titled album came out in 2009, there wasn’t much known about them past a striking album cover with a cutout white x on a stark black-ground. To see a band begin with a strong sense of who they’re going to be with both their image and sound is rare, making this bit of posturing welcome and even a little bit refreshing. On Coexist, like xx, the band is like their logo, exuding the kind of symmetric sterile-ness that highlights in bold any four-on-the-floor exertion.
The band’s best weapon has always been Jamie Smith, the producer behind the white x’s on stage. After an album remixing the late Gil-Scott Heron, releasing his own 12” Far Nearer, and producing the title track on Drake’s smash Take Care, it seems he’s cashed the checks on confidence and equipment. Armed with a brand new rig, Jamie creates space for vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim to breathe and coo in. The two don’t spare words, their lyrics look like exercises in white space on paper. Part of their appeal has always been that sparseness, the fill in the blank attitude that lends itself well to their mostly young audience, the ability to plug in your own meaning with the romantic failings of the late night and early morning.
Coexist begins with “Angels,” a showcase for Croft. The xx’s label, Young Turks, released a video of the band performing the song in Tokyo. It’s mainly a bit of aspirational promotion, a young band performing in a “Lost In Translation”-y hotel looking on at the light-soaked city through the windows. The only person doing anything in the video is Croft, Smith and Sim look on from the floor and bed. While Croft sings the barely-there tune, the camera focuses on her fingers, sliding up and down the fret-board gently. It’s an outlier, the song that shirks Smith’s production and leaves the track bare. It’s an interesting move for a band whose success is so wrapped up in their rhythm section, but the time spent missing drums only makes their appearance in the next track a welcome respite.
Where xx depends upon long builds, Coexist is more tactful, coming upon revelations suddenly. In an interview with The Creator’s Project, Smith mentions the time spent clubbing between the two records and the effect on the recording of Coexist. You can tell in the breakdown on “Fiction, “ when the air-horn shouts, as if to announce to the crowd something big and large and hopeful is coming. “And if I just might/wake up alone” turns into a painful joy, a celebration of disheveled mornings. It’s the difference between being surrounded by people, and being surrounded by your bedroom.
There’s plenty more highlights, enough so that around halfway through Coexist, during “Reunion,” you know they’ve avoided a come down from their Mercury Prize winning debut. While they’ll never surprise us like they did with xx, appearing as a symbol more than a band who just happened to have great songs, Coexist is in many ways a more accomplished album. While the xx had an amateurish charm to it, Coexist is painstakingly put together. In a piece on Grantland, Amos Barshad highlights the self-aware aloofness in the two vocalists, but a structured seriousness in Jamie. “He left doors open during sessions, letting street sound bleed into the mix. But he’d also spend endless hours perfecting the sound of every instrument during recording, rather than going back to fix anything with studio wizardry. He wanted it to sound homemade and immaculate.” Usually this leads to the overblown and monstrous, but instead of adding more, more drums, more vocals, a string section, this perfectionism has led to less. Coexist is whittled away until it’s at its most direct and affecting. Choruses on tracks like “Sunset,” with Croft singing “I always thought it was sad/ how we act like strangers” over a fat mechanic drum sound, could easily drift into something fit for stadiums, instead the trio hold back, soon smothering the poppy drums with layers of distortion.
For a guy frequently described as soft-spoken and reserved in interviews, Jamie Smith did manage to eek out a boast in the Grantland piece. “”If the record is successful, people aren’t going to think about when it was released. They’re just going to think of it as a classic.” The drum sounds Smith meticulously crafted over and over in his bedroom years ago, along with his childhood friends Croft and Sim’s nightbus confessions, have become entirely trademark for the band, yet they keep finding new ways to tell the same story. Coexist is a continuation, but in an exciting way; they’re building their canon piece by piece.