Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim of the xx perform during Lowlands music… (Dimitri Hakke / Getty Images )
2 1/2 stars out of four
Three years ago, this young trio from London burst through to the mainstream with their minimalist whisper pop gem "the xx," which presented a uniquely imagined sonic galaxy of three-dimensional echoed space. The group stood out amid the maximalist indie world, and its music became the soundtrack to quiet, tense late-night confessions.
The group's highly anticipated follow-up is called "Coexist," and it's a nearly identical album to the debut, mood-wise. Different songs, yes, created by artists three years older than when they last offered an album. But, nearly to a song, it's a virtual replica: One very good idea executed with similar results, like a second in a Mark Rothko series of canvases.
Within said series, every bass-kick thump is sacred, each reverbed snare snap hits with specificity. Member-producer Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie xx) has a sound, and you can spot it a mile away. A two-note guitar line in "Sunset" cascades through measures as though it were a passing satellite. Singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft will repeat a simple statement such as "being as in love with you as I am," as she does on the album's opening "Angels," so many times in a row that it nearly convinces you that the line has emotional depth. Such a conclusion is debatable, especially when fellow vocalist Oliver Sim replies with a spineless mumble.
The biggest problem with "Coexist," in fact, is the group's singular, shallow obsession with romantic love. Rather than exerting an effort to advance a conversation or craft unique circumstances in which to present notions on love, most of the lyrics on "Coexist" are one-dimensional planes floating through the group's oft-glorious 3-D spaces. At their worst, as on "Missing," the songs sound like an eavesdropped chat between glum teens with decent voices discussing two people you don't know — monochromatic mumbles about young lust and disappointment.
And as with most such sessions, the intimacies get tiring when the dialogue lacks revelation. What's the message here? That the unnamed "you" of most of these songs is making love difficult? That "my" feelings have changed? That love contains multitudes? Yes, it does. Hopefully, they'll soon realize that their music can expand to contain more than a few intriguing colors and that stasis is the enemy of passion.
Which isn't to say that Smith, who produced both the band's debut and "Coexist," hasn't made a convincing argument for his relevance as a sound sculptor. His ability to harness silence, to fill pregnant musical pauses with drama on songs such as "Try," proves that the group's success isn't a fluke. He's a miniaturist with a sonic microscope — where others revel in layers of collaged sound, Smith is more precise. If he likes an intriguing tone, be it a bass-line hook on "Swept Away" or a trippy feedback loop in "Our Song," he'll showcase it by eliminating anything that threatens to overshadow it — then delicately weave that sound back into the fabric of the song.
These moments suggest a band more evolved musically than lyrically, and whose ability to remain relevant will rely on whether they can create verbal tension to match their oft-simmering sound.
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