The xx’s 2009 debut broke big by focusing intently on shared intimacy and surgically subtracting everything else. The London group's minimal electro-pop made gentle guitar strums sound like fingers brushing against skin, stuttered beats feel like a couple of heartbeats syncing, slipping from sync, falling in again. No extra noise but the sounds two people make when they’re alone together. There was a genuine sense of surprise around the record, that something so modest could become so huge. But the stark aesthetic made some intuitive sense for a set of love songs—they emulated the point of intense infatuation where you’re not sure anything else even exists.
On Coexist, the band attempts to get closer still, cutting more fat from a sound that was dangerously svelte to start with. The result is a dull record, full of passion-challenged love songs taking a leisurely breaststroke in copious empty space. Defenders might be forced into jazz-dork arguments, asking you to imagine the notes they decided not to play, citing producer Jamie xx’s monk-like restraint. There are times when it sounds like a trip-hop album whose inept lawyer failed to clear any of the samples, so they decided to just release it without them. All that negative space wouldn’t be a problem if the elements highlighted within it were unusually distinct. James Blake often works with even fewer components, which only magnifies the impact of unexpected structural choices or bits of odd vocal production. Everything here feels so ordinary, weirdly bloodless for an album that’s supposedly all about emotion.
Lyrically, it does get fairly dark, with tracks like “Sunset” exploring a loss of loving feeling. This could necessitate the music's emotional distance. There’s a potentially compelling tension to holding someone close and feeling like they’re somewhere else. That drama doesn't come across much, though. Even the songs of devotion are expressed in basic language that doesn’t communicate the mundane detail of real, adult romance so much as it puts heavy feelings into unimaginative terms. It’s blankly pretty, but pretty blank.
The best aspect of The xx continues to be Romy Madley Croft’s soulful singing. As empty as it is, lead single “Angels” improves with repeat listens because of her earnest delivery (and a bold, crisp drum sound that pops briefly is sorely missed once it's gone). In the times he’s given sole spotlight, Oliver Sims sounds less like a muppet than he has previously. So, that’s something. But neither are very interesting singers. They just don’t make surprising choices. Their chemistry on this album seems lacking, too, with Sims's more handsome sighing denying us the first record's mismatched charm. The crudest, most basic point of The xx, if I even understand it correctly, is sex and longing (longing for sex?). The solemn, sedate couple heard on “Our Song” sound like they are headed for a boring lay, one that can’t be redeemed by a tastefully furnished bedroom.