The xx has seemingly stumbled into an oddly prophetic position as harbingers of post-modern aesthetics into the realm of popular music.
Their first album copped a very hedonistically sexual tone—both lyrically and rhythmically—with minimalist instrumentation and desolate echoes that seemed to radiate from each chiming guitar. Each lone piano chord reflected their empty, nauseating search for existence in a socially and spiritually uncertain world.
Based out of London, the band goes even further on the downward spiral of existential angst on their latest album Coexist.
Gone are the tightly reigned, well-siphoned guitar-generated songs of their debut.
Instead, the band opts for an even more disparate, ambient sound that better equips the male-female vocal interplay of bassist Oliver Sims and guitarist Romy Madley Croft. The stark beauty of their exchanges underscores a cyclical love affair, one that goes from infatuation to fallout and back again throughout the course of the album.
It’s a matter of personal temperament whether one looks at such lyrics with a certain degree of optimism or skepticism. The general platitudes with which affection are expressed in the beginning and end of the album (“The walls/I hide behind/you walk through”) feel empty and shallow compared to the deeply cutting discord that permeates the middle third (“It felt like you really knew me/Now it feels like you see through me”). There is an undermining of the idea of genuine connection, and a promotion of loving someone simply because they are the only one there.
Such thematic assertions are supported by music that sounds dispassionately perfect and machinelike. The xx owes much to their forbearers in shoegaze and dream pop, most specifically My Bloody Valentine, whose influence can most easily be seen in regards to the earlier mentioned male-female, borderline androgynous vocal dynamics.
However, even the churning guitar noise of My Bloody Valentine sounds humanistic and metaphysically sensual compared to well-measured, harp-like guitar chords on opener “Angel” or the all-too-perfect percussion on “Sunset.”
How does one gauge his or her response to an album that is so rebellious and assertive from multiple aspects?
There is no question that what The xx has done fits within the same ballpark as works by David Foster Wallace and David Hammons and is, on such a level, quite impressive.
However, having covered both extremes of rampant sexuality and now romance without connection, the question of whether or not they have sonically and thematically painted themselves into a corner remains a pertinent one for their artistic future.
In the end, Coexist is a perversely effective album, but it should also be a warning for fans to be ready if, come their next release, the band’s creative wheels have ceased spinning.