Harmony and minimalism ‘Coexist’ on sophmore album

Jordan Beck

Fun fact: At no point in the lyrics of its 11 songs does “Coexist,” the new album by London-based group The xx include a single proper noun.

That’s not to say there are no nouns whatsoever; there are non-specific references to natural phenomena and love abound.

The closest co-writers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim come to naming individual people, places or things is with pronouns.

“I,” “you” and “we” are all over the album’s lyric sheet. It’s a risky approach to lyric-writing, as it forces a band to balance between universal and vague. It’s fortunate, then, that The xx are one of those rare bands able to make vague work in their favor.

This is, in large part, due to their minimalist sound. Since their instant-classic, almost-self-titled-but-not-quite debut “xx”, The xx have been known for their quiet, reserved take on indie pop.

That debut album sounded unlike anything else when it came out back in 2009, and it was rightfully acclaimed as one of the best albums of the year.

Now, it’s time for album No. 2, and with it comes one of the most impossible situations for a band in recent memory.

Not only are The xx dealing with the usual problems of a sophomore set, but they’re doing so while trying to live up to a first album that was a “lightning in a bottle” moment. What’s a band to do?

Based on the first listen, the answer might seem to be “not much.” Although gorgeous, the lead single “Angels” could have fit on the last album without anyone noticing.

So could follow-up single “Chained,” save for a few beats. And the rest of the tracks seem to float along in a sort of blur, sounding more like ambient music designed for hip parties than one of the most hotly-anticipated albums of the year.

But here’s the thing: “xx” was one of those LPs that sounded sort of boring at first, but became far better on repeated listens. As it turns out, so is this one.

While the understated production can make it hard to notice, “Coexist” adds a ton of new sounds to the group’s sonic arsenal (courtesy of percussionist/producer Jamie xx).

These new touches might be most noticeable on “Reunion” and “Sunset,” two tracks that collectively serve as the album’s centerpiece.

“Sunset” takes the blueprint established by “xx” and replaces that album’s drum-machine rhythms with a prominent, yet tastefully unobtrusive, house beat. “Reunion” goes even further: not only does it include electronic woodblock percussion (possibly inspired by post-dubstep wunderkind Burial), it also features a steel drum intro, and it actually works.

Similar moments are hidden all over the album. Consider, for example, the whining synth line introducing “Try,” or the violins that give “Tides” an added sense of texture.

Another example is the four-second pause that pops up right as “Missing” is starting to build steam, and even the militaristic drum roll that starts to pop up halfway through “Angels” offers a unique layer to the song. Like a fine wine, “Coexist” is an album that gets better with age.

It’s not perfect, of course. For one thing, none of the songs here are as catchy as “Islands”, “VCR” or “Crystalized” from “xx.” The vocal lines from Croft and Sim could also have been a bit stronger. Honestly, this all feels like nitpicking.

Think of it like this: The xx may not have been able to reinvent the wheel with “Coexist” like they did with their debut album. However, this is a talented group of songwriters that did the next-best thing: they made a darn good wheel.