When the xx breezed into all our lives as if riding a gust of murky ambience in 2009, they somehow created a brand of music that seemed unique and distinguished despite holding few innovations and owing plenty to the swathes of trip hop, RnB, soul and early dubstep that dallied with similar atmospherics for decades previous. xx had a dynamic and atmosphere about it that somehow captured an unspoken essence of urban London and out of this Romy, Ollie and Jamie (we're all on first name terms with them apparently) created catchy and continuously giving pop songs that fuelled the BBC with a plethora of urban ambience for various TV shows and also provided various other producers with ample resources for bandwagon-momentum-generated remixes - Four Tet's 'Basic Space' and Flufftronix's 'Infinity' remixes both live long in the memory almost as part of the waves of adulation that The xx received for their debut album. 'Crystallised' and 'VCR' both became subversive classics in a very popular way while 'Intro' was used as the music for the 2010 elections in the UK - a surprising mainstream nod to this surprisingly mainstream band. All in all, xx was almost a classic of modern pop despite not sounding anything like pop music should.
So when it comes to that oh so difficult second album, how do you create something that captures the mood in this peculiar way again? By playing to the strengths of their debut album and defining their sound more entirely within them, on Coexist The xx succeed in further encapsulating 'their sound'. They've increased the minimalism (is that an oxymoron?) and further increased the reverb on the guitars that allowed xx to be described an as indie rather than an electronic ambient album (perhaps a factor in the success of the debut) to increase their ethereal fogginess. Opener 'Angels' subtly glides along Beach House evoking guitars, high pitched bass and Romy wispily singing "Light reflects from your shadow/ It is more than I thought could exist/ You moved through the room/ The breathing was easy/ If someone believed me" . Romy and Ollie continue to delve in the shady delicacies of love (and stuff) to create easily engaging if sometimes bland lyrics on Coexist and this is again seen on 'Chained' with Romy and Ollie's textured combinations singing "we used to be closer than this/we used to be closer this/we used to get closer than this/ is it something you missed". Over floating synths that sound a bit like Boards of Canada, and clicking rhythms as Jamie xx's own influence is subtly felt, the song sees the trio continue to combine effortlessly to create brooding catchy songs amid their murky atmospherics. 'Chained' is the closest that they get to their peak of subversive catchiness on xx's 'Crystallised'. The other classic xx track (if that's already a thing) is 'Tides' where Ollie and Romy again combine in that infectious way, singing "you leave with the tide and I can't stop you leaving" over musique concrete glitches and some staccato-ed guitars that create that lovely melodic ease of listening that made tracks like 'Basic Space' classics of the late 00s.
The xx also show ambitions to develop their sound beyond this minimalist efficaciousness, infusing the clubby aspects from the various remixes from the xx era to allow for an overall house feel to develop at points of Coexist. At points this serves to undermine the sense of space and shade that epitomises The xx and leads towards the dull side of subtle nuance. On 'Fiction' the song is tightly structured by dancey grooves as Ollie dourly croons "fiction when we're not together/mistaken for a vision, something of my own creation", but despite the attempts to use dissonant piano interjections to keep the song moving, it rather fades like the type of fiction that you force yourself to read to the end out of a sense of duty rather than turning the pages over without a glimpse of thought. 'Sunset' also errs towards blandness as housey rhythms never really break into a melodic epiphany but it rather trods along and is carried rather than shaded by the typical xx atmospherics.
But there are points when these developments do indeed acts as developments that enrich the xx's already familiar sound rather than constrain it. On 'Reunion' you hear the Caribbean sounding steel pan drums that have defined Jamie xx's solo work amid slow building guitars and hushed vocals in a song that's almost designed to be remixed. It works as track in its own right though as a muted bass provides a decent harmony to what turns out to be a typically xx sounding coda with Romy and then both Romy and Ollie repeating "Did I see you see me in a new light" over a 4/4 clubby rhythm. 'Swept Away' also builds along clicking rhythms and intermittent piano chords as Jamie xx's presence is again felt alongside more prominent bass beneath melodically matched guitars and vocals.
If anything, 'Reunion' and 'Swept Away' present a slight evolution in sound that will serve The xx as well for at there are moments on Coexist where you ponder how far their minimalist atmospherics can take them. On 'Try' in particular, the reverbed guitars and singing interchanges become a bit self-parodic and slightly banal. An increase in the influence of Jamie xx amid Ollie and Romy's sometimes rambling duets could serve to maintain the edges that allow The xx to be effortless cool and engaging and prevent these edges from being frayed by repetition and dullness. Bands who define themselves a 'sound of their own' have to develop within their pocketed allure and resist becoming subsumed by it. On album closer 'Our Song' reversed guitar swirls suggest another development that may allow the sound to continue to grow and the album in general takes The xx in a positive direction, rather than standing still.
The difficulty in following a debut that many felt was a 'breath of fresh air' is that unless you successfully alter your sound completely, that breath won't be so fresh second time. Coexist is not as striking and not as catchy as the debut xx but there is enough within it to suggest that this shady trio are no one album wonders.