Early tasters of The xx’s second album all pointed to a more-of-the-same dictum. On first listen, ‘Angels’ had the same echoing guitar that was a common thread weaved through the fabric of their debut – on first listen that is. The lyrical content was so delicately softer, with female vocalist Romy Madley Croft singing of defiance in the fear of a burgeoning relationship that you felt perhaps there might be more to Coexist than meets the eye. That effect still works in this context, easing the listener into the album, almost creating the effect of a prologue before their second act begins.
It’s ‘Chained’, however, that feels like the proper introduction to the current state of xx play. There is no huge renovation of their sound but the various elements bond in a different manner than before. Jamie Smith’s input is vastly more apparent than before, most likely due to his extracurricular pursuits in the interim from album to album helping to hone his craft and lend him more confidence. Deeply embedded synths and beats now stand side by side with the guitars and vocals. Elsewhere, house beats creep to life over Croft and Oliver Sim’s vocals on ‘Swept Away’, solidifying his place as the band’s lynchpin as he manages to refine and also expand their sound creating something that is at times pulsing and at others panoramic.
Vocally, Croft retains her trademark sombre whisper but Sim’s smokey tones are hugely more assured than before. The multitude of performances and recording time has lent him a steadier, more projected voice. Left to his own devices on ‘Fiction’ his voice transcends the sullen smoulder he demonstrated so keenly before and exhibits a newfound sense of emotion. He and his vocal partner still portray the same tentative back and forth that featured so prominently on ‘Crystallised’, though this time it sheds the sense of darkness, instead inhabiting some twilight realm of a relationship that has – or is about to – diffuse.
As with ‘Angels’, many of the tracks outwardly seem to show them traversing similar lyrical territory, as they did on xx, but it is an album that will demand repeat listening to discover the distinction between this and its predecessor. ‘Unfold’ and ‘Reunion’ have a notion of dreaded retrospect, the latter’s chorus of “never, not ever, never, not ever again” underlining their movement from initial encounters on the first album to resolution and dissolution throughout this one.
Their detractors will find any amount of ammunition here to claim they haven’t created anything new with this album. It is not a quick, accessible listen but then again neither was their first and that became one of the most critically acclaimed of the past five years. It is unashamedly their album; the recognisable elements have been nurtured in the space between releases and although it can be seen as a slide rather than a leap forward, it is destined to be one of the year’s best.