Disclaimer: xx is quite possibly my favorite non-hip hop album of the aughts or whatever you want to call them. If I wrote this review after listening to Coexist for the first time, I might have ended up sounding like this guy. Take from that what you will. (You can stream Coexist over at NPR)
Much of the hype over the past few months has lead to the opinion that Coexist would be more dance oriented than xx, largely due to the group spending time in the club that they had (presumably crafting xx) in their teenage years. Questions abounded: was Coexist going to be a dance record? Would it sound more like Jamie’s solo work? When the cover appeared a few weeks ago, the neon oil slick inside the X seemed to hint at a more fantastical gesture towards dance music. Maybe even some rave nostalgia.
In an interview with Pitchfork last month, Oliver answered many of these questions with a resounding no: “Early on, Jamie said something about the album being inspired by dance music, so everyone’s expecting a house beat to drop halfway through– which is hilarious because this is not a dance record.” And it’s true; Coexist is about as far from a dance record as you can get. Even more so than xx, it is inherently introverted, intended for late night headphone listening.
In its own way, Coexist is a perfect album. Every song is delicately arranged, eschewing in vogue maximalism for intricate percussion and tighter songwriting. There is no excess on this album, and despite utilizing virtually the same palette as xx, the album is far more technically impressive, especially on “Chained” and “Swept Away” which borrow heavily from UK Bass contemporaries Mount Kimbie, Burial and Joy Orbison.
While xx was an adventure through the perils of youthful love, Coexist sees Oliver and Romy speaking from experience. Outside of the refrains of “love, love, love” on album opener “Angels”, they’ve matured in leaps and bounds since 2009 (they did write portions of the debut when they were 15, after all). The subject matter is the same, of course, but it cuts deeper this time around. While the album excels in the technical realm, and that point can’t be overstated, it often falls into a workmanlike routine.
On “Chained”, Romy sings “did I hold it too tight, did I not let enough light in” and that is exactly where Coexist sees its limitations. The xx might not have allowed enough light in, deferring to form over function. On “Missing” and “Unfold” especially, the dense atmospherics sound forced and Romy and Oliver are effectively muffled. Instead of the strangled tenderness evoked throughout xx, Coexist almost feels indifferent at times. Too internal for its own good.
That said, few (if any) artists in the contemporary pop landscape could craft a love song as perfect as “Sunset” or “Fiction”. If you can’t identify with the refrain “it feel like you really knew me, now it feels like you see right through me”, I don’t know what planet you’re from. Oliver and Romy are in perfect harmony on the two aforementioned songs, at the absolute height of their excruciating insecurity. And that’s what makes The xx so relatable; we’re all deeply insecure beings, watching, waiting and dreading what is going to happen next at the workplace, school, parties and the bedroom. Romy and Oliver encapsulate what we’re all too afraid to say ourselves.
Coexist shouldn’t be looked at so much as an individual work, but as the darker, tighter-wound follow up to xx. It will go down as one of the two or three best albums of the year when it’s time to look back, but will it have the staying power of the debut? Can a lack of progression be excused, replaced by technical proficiency and maturation? I can’t answer those questions for you. Like any follow-up, Coexist will be criticized far more than xx, but that should lead to further expansion. After all, the crew is still in their early 20’s and has plenty of lustful despair to last them for at least a few more albums.