It’s very hard to say something truly resonant about what it means—or what it feels like—to be in a romantic relationship. The cultural lexicon of romance is so riddled with cliché, the emotional composition of the actual situation so oddly ephemeral, that even the most well-intentioned or intellectually complex explorations can appear hopelessly jejune or, worse, insultingly calculated. Accordingly, songs about love and its various provinces, while certainly one of pop’s most voluminous exports, are often some of the least satisfying products of modern music.
On its sophomore album Coexist, British band The xx attempts to remedy that, battling through the various stages of infatuation and emerging on the other side a fuller and more alluring musical outfit than on its debut record. Much like the group’s self-titled debut, Coexist directs all of its focus at a single topic, honing in on its thematic prey with a hunger and curiosity that smolders below the surface of each song. While its debut xx fixated on sex (wringing from the subject an incredibly stirring record, equally capable of evoking moments of visceral appetite and wistful longing), Coexist levels its gaze on the emotional facets of attraction. The result is a poignant discussion of uncertainty and engagement spread across 11 tracks that spill outward from their band members’ instruments with both weight and grace.
The album’s opener, “Angels,” exults in the difficulty that necessarily haunts attempts to explain someone’s true value to you. Over hesitantly rising guitars, vocalist Romy Madley Croft grasps for ways to make others understand the meaning that her lover has to her. The lyrics are impressionistic and detached from one another, flitting bursts of emotion all orbiting one unreachable concept. The effect is simultaneously devastating and invigorating and, furthermore, a mission statement for the album. “Angels” is the sound of a band committing to an emotional and philosophical struggle that is, in some ways, inherently unwinnable. From the very first moment of Coexist, the record is unabashedly aware that it will likely fail but is wholly determined to integrate each and every possible misstep into the fabric of the end product. Much in the same way that the lover knows in the back of his or her mind the likelihood of heartbreak, this band admits to the complexity of its undertaking and reckons, with incredible results, that the stumbles ingrained in any attempt to discuss or explore romantic relationships are crucial to said discussion.
Understanding this, the record moves forward brilliantly, recording bit by bit the things that make our romantic entanglements seem so fundamental and still so foreign. Coexist deals with different stages of love in different songs, exploring the best and worst of the sensation in strokes of vividly abstract imagery intermixed with startlingly blunt confessionals. Accommodating the sheer variety of emotions present in the album, the band has woven a sound that engages the best bits of its debut with new and beautiful tendencies. Songs such as “Sunset,” “Missing,” and “Try” return to the throbbing beats of the previous album, charging the tracks with both frantic insistence and measured reflection.
Tracks like “Angels” and “Swept Away,” however, employ a different set of sounds and moods. Instead of overtly driving and directing the songs, the beats seem to exist in a more subtle space. As a result, these compositions take on an ethereal feel, progressing wistfully so that they almost leave listeners suspended in midair upon the melody before gently setting them down on the next rising throb of rhythm.
The artful combination of these two types of songs makes Coexist an incredibly evocative listen, packed with an intelligence and introspection that is rare among pop albums. Whereas most artists might be content to tackle a similar theme in terms of narrative, The xx chooses to view its chosen subject as so much more: transcendent of individual or moment or story, textured and expansive, layered, faceted, and ultimately encompassing. Whereas many musicians treat love as something within them, The xx engages it as something in which it is contained, stifled, drowned and baptized.
Coexist is the first record in a while that I could ever describe as a journey. It’s also one of the few I’ve ever heard that made me feel that it was a journey the band was taking with me.