How can a band that forged itself in a minimalist sound follow up their acclaimed debut without losing or alienating their fans? That was the question that posed itself to admirers and listeners of The xx. A question which probably crept into some people’s minds after the release of their self-titled debut in 2009, a question which swirled around the mind of those-in-the-know within the music world, a question that has been soundly answered by a group who were the tip of the downtempo, electrobeat iceberg.
In following up what was a seminal debut release, The xx were at risk of out-doing the sound they cultivated with their second album, Coexist. As with a catalogue of artists, they were at high risk of a second-season syndrome which could see them crumble under the pressure of their somewhat cult-like popularity. Unlike so many artists pertaining to that catalogue, the trio got it right and their progression, although not markably different to the untrained ear, shows sign of progression.
The album starts off with the lead single Angels, a song that marked out a divide in opinion – at least in my circle of friends. Some thought it heralded a return for The xx at what they do best, while the sceptics among my group, myself included, thought that it might have been trying to be so minimal (you’re going to see a lot of the word minimal, sorry) they annulled any effect the song might have.
While Angels is definitely not one of their louder, outstanding numbers – yes, they do have louder numbers – it is certainly an audible work of art. After several revisions, my opinion folded into the majority’s and I saw that their quiet integrity and ability to deliver a sound that both enamours and entraps the listener was still there.
Following on from Angels, The xx have concocted songs which pay homage to the sound which brought them their following, but also songs which show that they are very much riding the crest of the wave with regard to downtempo music. While songs like Chained, Fiction and Sunset demonstrate their playful involvement with that genre, there are some tender moments on the album which are reminiscent of Shelter and Fantasy.
In recent interviews, Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie XX) has said that the band wanted to create more of a party atmosphere on the album, involving elements of club music, and you can see where this comes through – when Tides and Swept Away kick into the stride of their beats, you can almost visualise it being played in some back-street, indie disco.
Personally, I find the difference in sound between this release and their debut is that when the debut came out there was some kind of nervousness in their sound, symptomatic of their youth maybe. This time round, things sound more certain, like that subtle young adult confidence that affects you in your 20s; it’s a maturing confidence that’s as subtle as their songs, but one that still resonates through this album. While I enjoyed their debut, I did feel a bit excluded from some songs, but this album pulls you in and involves you with every song – it’s definitely got a more personal sound.
If I had to pick my favourite song from this album then it would be a three way tie between Fiction, Tides and Swept Away. I think the latter takes it, but all three are perfect examples of how a second album can make and not break your career.