One of the first major transmissions from Camp XX in the build up to release of Coexist, three years on from their Mercury Prize winning and election coverage sound-tracking breakthrough of all breakthroughs, was a video of first single and opening track ‘Angels’ being performed. In some sleek Tokyo hotel room, against the skyscrapers beyond her, Romy Croft sits with her guitar, left almost in silhouette as the warmth of the interior battles against the sheer darkness of the night sky.
This dispatch created a visualisation of The xx ecosystem so absolutely perfect in its immutable companionship with their music as to remove the need for words. Wistful lyrics are matched by the delivery, enchanted but hinting at some darker disaffection, far away and above it all, yet held down to earth by the instrumental of reverberating guitar gliding over the woozy bass-line and Jamie xx’s staple pulsating electronic heartbeat.
But whilst a beautiful standalone opening single, ‘Angels’ as part of the larger body of the album stands as the flagship example of where my beefs with this album arise.
Here lie the first indications of the stylistic tropes which when repeated elsewhere (often to excess) reveal a disappointing dearth in inventiveness, an over-reliance on a signature aesthetic, and, perhaps most disturbingly for a band so heavily reliant on emotion, a sense of emotional disconnect.
Lyrically the record is centred on and around relationships and non-relationships. And that’s pretty much it. The dichotomy between love and lovelorn up amongst the rooftops and under the sheets instigated in ‘Angels’ contains almost all the thematic body of the album, and beyond a few choice lines, the majority of the Romy/Oliver dual-headed hydra’s offerings are almost entirely devoid of individual sentiment, of snatches of personal detail or storytelling that might elevate the album’s lyrical content and song-writing execution from vagueries and clichés to eliciting an emotional response that matches the abilities of the music. Take this from ‘Unfold’: “you don’t answer when I call, I would have given you it all. Oh out of sight, out of mind, it doesn’t mean you’re not mine, the feeling goes on and on and on”. With imagination as limited as this, the chap or chapess in question has done rather well to extricate themselves from the clutches real-life ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ meme and the apparent tedium/terror of co-existence that awaited them otherwise.
In evident contrast to this banality is the simple truth that where the album really thrives and stands out are in its textures, when the band take the plunge and get experimental. The steel drums on ‘Reunion’ bring character and a new dynamic to The xx formula, just when you might be growing tired of endless echo and delay. Even better is when that song hits the halfway point and it all changes up: building bass-lines and an increasingly soaring guitar-line give way, and in the clearing the song becomes far more electronic and, well, Jamie xx than anything else on the album. Similarly ‘Tides’ in particular is an absolute darling of a track. An acapella opening foregrounds the intermingling male/female call-and-response that demarcates so much of the band’s sound, then these gorgeous strings emerge that stand out strikingly amidst the strains of reverb guitar throughout the rest of the album. All of this is backed up by one of the best basslines on the album that’s just downright grooving, taking the rest of the song with it like the tides of the title, all punctuated with the electric rattle that hangs in the background - a definite highlight.
Then it just cuts out.
Here lies the second of my main issues with the album - the failure to flow, to truly conclude. Instead a crucial flaw of the song-writing on the album is the disappointing habit of just ending. It was a quality that worked excellently on ‘Angels’ as an isolated love-letter. But over the course of its entirety it limits the enjoyment of the record, instead it is quite simply jarring, particularly for a band in which it is the production, the atmosphere and extra layers of attention that bring so much more to the sound.
Where this issue becomes particularly frustrating is when penultimate track ‘Swept Away’ comes into view. It is perhaps the most beautiful moment of the record, and I can’t help but feel that this largely by virtue of it being the only track on the album that is over even 4 minutes. For the first time they finally give themselves time to stretch out, an element that should fit in perfectly with the atmospheres and grooves they construct in their song-writing - this really isn’t a band that should rush themselves. It’s more beat heavy than anything else on the LP, yet this is juxtaposed with beautiful, distant keys that finally provide full closure to a track, a whole as great as the sum of its parts which culminates to reach an elegant, sophisticated conclusion that ideally should end the album.
Unfortunately, then ‘Our Song’ appears. It pulls on the heart strings, for some reason I picture sea lions madly in love and swimming round and round each other underwater, and it will more likely than not soundtrack a Channel 4 drama at some point. But the final lyric we hear is “You just walk through”, and fittingly the song itself just ends. There’s some final static and that’s it. It’s frustratingly anti-climactic, but by this juncture in the album it becomes apparent that The xx aren’t a band that deal all too often in climaxes. They’re all about the build and the aftermath – the romance of the chase, and the despair of finding yourself alone once again.
So there we have it: The xx return, full of promise with Cexist, a record frequently possessing intelligence, ingenuity and a handful of moments of real beauty. There are all the signs of a really great album everywhere. But the often patchy, copy and paste lyrics and overeager song cropping, perhaps the consequence of a self-conscious fear of appearing self-indulgent in their song construction: to the detriment of one of their greatest strengths -creating immersive atmospheres and rolling grooves, ultimately lead to an inescapable sense of final disappointment and thoughts of what could have been.
They actually sum up the issue rather effectively themselves over the course of the album: “Did I hold you too tight, did I not let enough light in?” Yeah. Yeah you did xx. But there is still plenty of it, and don’t worry, I’ll definitely be here to give you a cuddle when you come back.
Key Cuts: Swept Away, Reunion, Tides