The xx – Coexist

It’s the blank spaces between notes that make The xx’s ‘Coexist’ such a powerful listen, writes VICTORIA BIRCH.

The xx use negative space like an instrument. Their second album is a paean to silence. Compressed and contracted by the most minimal of arrangements, the spaces are where you’ll find the band’s emotional secrets.

There is sound, of course, and it provides the blanks with an empathetic framework. The steel drums pealing through ‘Reunion’ ditch Caribbean cliche in favour of something altogether more melancholic. ‘Missing’s tremulous guitars quiver like a voice hamstrung by tears and a rickety snare is held in place on ‘Angels’ by the most tenuous of threads. These elements are unadorned and blessed by brevity. Structured for slow, thoughtful consumption the album feels like it was designed to quietly envelop the listener. There’s little on Coexist that immediately brands the brain with its imprint, and it’s all the more powerful for it.

Jamie Smith takes credit for the album’s production and while he’s remixed Florence Welch’s overblown bombast, here he keeps a tight rein on the sonic purse strings. Only absolute essentials are needed. Whether it’s a singular organ nudging up against a lone kick-drum or hollow beats flitting in and out of austere keys, Smith transposes The xx’s dark matter onto a restrained and elegant canvas.

Although the self-titled debut had an electronic pulse, it wasn’t as heavily indebted to clubland as it is here. Smith borrows tropes from dancing days and takes them out of context, leaving them awkward and exposed. This is nightclub’s hedonism filtered through the prism of regret and self-loathing. The rhythms canter along in familiar enough patterns, however, the effect is less hands in the air euphoria, more head in the hands despondency.

“This is nightclub’s hedonism filtered through the prism of regret and self-loathing.”

Against this backdrop, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft chart the course of their respective disappointments. Their sadness is interwoven and at times, like on ‘Our Song’, their voices are so close they sound like two parts of a whole. This isn’t a conversation between star-crossed lovers though; it’s two people who have wandered separately into the same black hole. Instead of taking comfort from shared experience, Sim and Madley-Croft are increasingly isolated by their own grief.

For all the aural notes of restraint and yearning, it’s the nothingness that’s the kicker. There’s three seconds of it in ‘Missing’, the perfect space for Sim to hang a noose around his relationship. “Now there’s no hope for you and me,” he intones, leaving the words to swing dead and heavy in the void. There are moments like this all over the album. Sometimes brief pauses, sometimes gaping holes, they hold all the things that were never said; all the things left too late.

There comes a point when adulthood arrives and shit needs to be done, things need to be paid for. It’s no longer feasible to be grossly consumed by your weeping heart, no matter how battered it is. Engaging with youthful angst can be a challenge, so it’s no small claim to say Coexist will wring salty tears from even the most battle-hardened of lovers.