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SPIN Essentials

The xx, ‘Coexist’ (Young Turks)

The xx / Alexandra Waespi
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 11, 2012
Label: Young Turks

The xx had a lot to live up to after their gorgeously choreographed 2009 debut; but as quickly as Coexist launches into opening track “Angels,” the trio fully delivers the sort of emotionally manipulative cauldron-stirring their fans adore. There’s the breathy, surely-about-to-faint whispers of Romy Madley Croft, of course, gently coaxing longing out of lyrics meant for late-night love letters (“You move through the room / Like breathing was easy / If someone believed me / They would be as in love with you as I am”), carefully balanced between honest, gut-wrenching desire and stalker-like idolization, all backed by the familiar echoes of an idly plucked guitar and the barely audible thuds of a drum. The result may be quietly soothing, but it’s not exactly easy listening.

As a brand, the xx have thrived almost exclusively on peddling the pedestalled idea(l)s of love. As with many of their influences — the minimal orchestrations of Young Marble Giants, the post-punk pop inflections of Japan, the sultry silkiness of Sade, the smoothly ambient depth of Everything But the Girl, the angst of Interpol — they can just as easily evoke unbearable adoration as unbearable loneliness. Coexist further proves their lovelorn mastery: “Our Song,” “Swept Away,” and “Chained” describe a purgatory similar to “Angels.” (“Chained” harkens back to the Pixies’ “Hey,” whose “We’re chaiiiiiiined” chorus drives one of rock’s most heart-stabbing love songs.) But the tales of first loves and romantic naiveté explored by Croft, the similarly smoky-voiced Oliver Sim, and producer Jamie Smith on the band’s debut have only grown thornier and more complicated here.

“My heart is beating in a different way,” Sim sings on “Missing.” Floating amid a tensely pulsing stretch of background heys and ohs drowning in soaring, voluminous guitar pangs, that line may best describe the xx’s newfound maturity. Their debut seemed entirely devoted to romanticizing the regular — with recurring themes of seas, suns, islands, crystals, oceans, nights, and stars — and while some emotional growth is inevitable for group that debuted as 20-year-olds, one of the more striking aspects of Coexist is that such fantastical, elemental star-crossed-lover talk has been replaced by evocations of a harder, more aggressively worked-at love: Buzzwords this time might include “needing,” “believing,” “learning,” “leaving,” “reuniting,” “missing.”

Not that they’ve turned their backs on the natural world entirely: The beautifully concocted “Sunset” is another Coexist highlight. Over five minutes, the song’s subtle four-on-the-floor beat and minimal bassline make those signature wallowing guitar lines bloom; add the chorus — “I always thought it was sad / The way we act like strangers / After all we had / We act like we’ve never met” — and you’ve got both a Gotye-type sentiment and, just maybe, a Gotye-type hit. In recent years, Smith has all but mastered this aesthetic, couching melancholy vocals in gripping basslines and faded, knocking drums, along with enough melodic riffs to create a perfectly balanced and soulful tension. Just as he did on last year’s Gil Scott-Heron collaboration We’re New Here, Smith creates Coexist‘s finest moments by both stretching and magnifying the gritty beauty of his vocalists, from the melodrama-sapping cheer of “Tides” to the running hi-hats and upbeat funky house groove of “Swept Away.”

Production flourishes aside, Coexist seems designed to not overemphasize the presence of the man now widely known as Jamie xx (the guy who helped Drake score yet another radio hit). There are no full-on dance tracks here, and minimalism is still a way of life for this particular trio — reflected through their simple lyrics, clean instrumentals, now-iconic logo, and all-black-everything onstage demeanor. But what makes this music special is what Smith does with all that stylized sparseness, transforming it into something alive and dynamic instead of merely sleepy. Millions of late-night love-letter authors will be grateful.