On their seductive, self-titled debut, the xx painted a portrait of lovers on the brink, two souls that, while still utterly obsessed and lovesick over their faltering relationship, couldn’t help but drive each other away in frustration and regret. The band’s now-signature sound followed suit: a come-hither mix of minimalist, Aaliyah-inspired R&B and Interpol-style guitar work that resulted in some very beguiling make-out music laced with just the right amount of angst.
The band’s sophomore effort, Coexist, is the next stage of our couple’s journey: Now separated and devastated, the lovebirds (again voiced by the wonderful, whispery-throated duo of guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim) muse on what went wrong in a kind of resigned back and forth that one imagines might have taken place during a hastily placed midnight phone call. The album is likewise musically fractured, a quilt of soft guitars, rhythmic pulses, and cathedral reverb that possesses the barest amount of melodic structure. Tracks, marked by a nighttime hush, often seem held together solely by the sheer will of Croft and Sim’s magnetic voices; if not for their forceful presence, the grieving Coexist would retreat into its lush, dark hideaway.
Despite the fact that Coexist is both gorgeous and thoughtful, it’s difficult not to be disappointed by its anticlimactic drift. “Tides” is a characteristic example, hinting at a powerful experience as its beat gains momentum and Madley Croft’s guitar begins to ascend. But then the riff soon dies and the track slides into a murky, cavernous soup. Whenever some unchecked energy starts to bubble up, as it does during the midpoint of “Swept Away,” the band quickly suffocates any source of dynamism. Rather than go grand, the xx opts to withdraw.
Thus, there are no tight, percussion-driven pieces one would expect following the explosive trajectory of beatsmith Jamie xx’s solo career, nor anything as driven as the xx’s “Islands” or as affecting as “Shelter.” Of the album’s few standout tracks, only “Fiction” comes close to eclipsing the half-dozen or so uptempo gems that populated the band’s debut. What’s left is a collection of richly crafted but idling songs in desperate need of some muscle.