British trio the XX are in the possibly enviable position of releasing Coexist — like all sophomore albums, already fraught with expectation — after a debut that may or may not have changed the game. It’s hard to tell. Certainly they were supposed to. Reviewers and fans rhapsodized over xx as if it invented some sort of genre or musical antimatter or 13th hour of the night, and when everyone calls something important, it tends to become so. Certainly their sound — moody guitars, distant percussion, diffident vocals, plus whatever’s more than the sum of those parts — is now everywhere. “Intro” spawned an Apolo Ohno commercial and a Rihanna song. A Jamie Smith solo track spawned another Rihanna song. “Islands” became a Shakira song. Entire swaths of R&B and electronic music have submerged themselves this decade in the XX’s particular pool of gloom, and young producers using minimalism and space rank in novelty somewhere around young producers using Soundcloud.
“Not only are the XX ubiquitous, but everyone they emulated is either ubiquitous themselves or taking cues from them. So it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘Coexist,’ at times, sounds like a composite of every track on ‘xx’. It’s like going back and listening to the Pixies in 2012 — they’ve so thoroughly codified certain sounds that they no longer sound fresh.”
For this, you can credit already extant musical trends, credit the XX members’ (mostly Jamie and vocalist Romy Madley-Croft) frequent, well-chosen solo work and DJ sets, and yes, partly credit the album — but only partly. For all its accolades, xx pioneered nothing musically. If the constant presence of Young Marble Giant in reviews didn’t suggest the XX sound wasn’t wholly new, the group’s interviews should. Sade have lasted through decades of these somber nights, and the XX have name-checked them as influences. Everything but the Girl got there in the mid-‘90s, particularly when house producer Todd Terry was involved, and the group’s name-checked them too. Branching out: Air did it, and Madley-Croft even sounds rather like guest vocalist Lisa Papineau. Mazzy Star did it, and Romy and Jamie could almost be Hope and Dave. As for the “duets,” if that’s a usable term when the vocal interplay doesn’t sound like cooperation but avoiding each other’s gaze or sitting sullen on opposite sides on the bed, Oliver Sims and Madley-Croft’s aesthetic could get its own paragraph of predecessors. Most recently, the Swell Season, in Once, got an Oscar for this hesitant, soft-hewn longing.
This isn’t a criticism of the XX, or even a reappraisal. It’s just a bit of context that’s gone missing at times among the hype. And there’s one more piece of context necessary. All those acts have another thing in common. They’re either amid their own whirlwinds of influence (Sade, with whom Jessie Ware and Delilah and seemingly the entire British underground has fallen in sophisticated love) or their own comebacks — sometimes even XX-assisted, as with Tracey Thorn and her recent cover of “Night Time.” Not only are the XX ubiquitous, but everyone they emulated is either ubiquitous themselves or taking cues from them. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Coexist, at times, sounds like a composite of every track on xx. It’s like going back and listening to the Pixies in 2012 — they’ve so thoroughly codified certain sounds that they no longer sound fresh.
There are changes, almost. Jamie’s poured the XX’s post-game-change dollars into the mix, making everything sound like a richer version of itself. There are tiny sonic experiments — the Twilight Zone pings at the start of “Try;” “Tides”’ bass strut (a word you’d never associate with xx); exponentially more steel drums, for which you can blame Jamie’s solo work. They all fold in unobtrusively. Romy and Oliver are singing better than ever, and in places, Romy even sounds like the R&B singer she supposedly always did, but you can’t exactly call it progress. They are still singing, by and large, about the same things, too: the anticipatory time before an affair, when it could become anything, or the cracks that form when it no longer is. Coexist is no more or less a love record than xx; perish the relationship for which these are your songs.
There is, however, one major, obvious change: The fact that every other track is vaguely, quietly four-to-the-floor. Every XX member has leapfrogged in interviews over one another to mention that Coexist isn’t a dance record. It’s understandable — in this time of big-business dance music, heading to the clubs is about as cliché a move as group can make — but a tad defensive. Parts of Coexist could exist just fine on such a record. It’d be the subtle sort, the kind where every track title sounds vaguely tropical and where the tinny, distant beats on “Fiction” would constitute an uptempo track, but it’s recognizable. “Reunion” could become a nine-minute extended version with minimal remixing; you’d just need to repeat it twice. “Sunset” could become the same with a longer midsection, and “Swept Away,” the longest track here, is structured like one from the beginning. This could get jarring. Over a boutique-polite beat on “Chained,” Oliver and Romy sing “We used to get closer than this/ Is it something you miss?” The answer begs itself.
You can’t fault the XX, though; xx had such a fully formed sound that they had to change something to avoid the stagnation they’ve already been accused of. The shift is hardly drastic; there are plenty of pleasures for older fans. Intro “Angels” is the closest track here to xx, built from little more than skittering percussion, slide guitars, breaths and Romy singing about love to an empty room. ”Missing” turns half its vocals into echoes, so distant and strangled you suspect each duet partner may actually be dead, certainly absent. As for the dance tracks, you couldn’t call them game-changers, but that was always hyperbole. They’re simply the XX resembling even more what they always were: a very good downtempo group. That might not sound so innovative, but alone at 3 a.m., it’s the only sound you want.
Coexist is out 9/10 via Young Turks. Stream the album now at NPR.