A friend of mine runs a sushi restaurant. “I don’t know why I put Nick Drake on the sound system,” he complained the other day. “The upbeat Japanese surf rock keeps being punctuated by quiet, baleful moaning – like a great dane baying softly into the wind.” The diners were probably divided. Some people get off on sad music and some don’t. Forty years ago, the former played Leonard Cohen LPs with a silk hanky thrown over the light bulb. Today, they listen to the xx.
Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, whose debut album won the Mercury Prize in 2010, may be the most atmospheric band in the world. Ten seconds of their Spartan electronica and hushed, synchronised vocals and your eyes will mist over – you’ll be sucked into your own internal movie, watching your life play out in black and white, sitting on a night bus with rain streaming down the window.
A BBC DJ told me the other day he’d had to turn off the new album, Coexist, because it was depressing him so much. But a teenage fan comments under a clip on Youtube, “I want them to be playing when I lose my virginity, when I graduate high school, when I get married, when I give birth, when I get sick, when I die, at my funeral.” It’s not just a kids’ thing, either. They drew the biggest crowd in the history of Bestival this year, a black sea of respectful, gently nodding heads, just the point on Friday night when the party should have been in full swing. The music is a wholly interactive experience. Maybe it’s what, in psychobabble, they call “sublimation” – expressing your innermost feelings through a socially acceptable outlet.
Smith (producer, electronic mastermind) met Croft and Sim (vocals, guitar and bass) at The Elliott School in Putney, a standard London comprehensive with a non-standard reputation for music: alumni include post-rock whizz Kieran Hebden and the hugely successful Hot Chip, plus the mysterious dubstepper Burial. The head of music, classically trained, taught himself guitar and drums when he got the job. It all sounds a bit Dead Poets Society – children were apparently encouraged to be in bands, plug in and play anywhere, and always to choose “the strange chords over the obvious ones”.
The xx, now all aged 23, have played down the school connection, saying they were largely overlooked by their teachers. It’s easy to see why. Early live footage reveals a comically sulky boy/girl double-act with faces crestfallen, and diverse beats and bloops skittering around their half-whispered vocals in a manner that resembles those “shred” parodies on YouTube.
But a strange dynamic goes a long way, and the intense relationship between Croft and Sim is the emotional centre of the xx’s music. Palpably close (they’ve been friends since they were babies), at first they looked like the Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham of the dubstep generation. Then they were revealed to be gay and the shared psychodramas, breathed so intimately from mouth to mouth, became the voice of one androgynous, platonic boy-girl heart, while Smith tapped away on his sequencer, puppet master of all the drama.
They remain the critics’ darlings because, like Burial or Thom Yorke, diffident characters making cerebral music always command respect. The faint feeling of “emperor’s new clothes” is balanced by the music’s undeniable power. Croft’s guitar playing is mesmerising, just a couple of scattered notes here and there left ringing like hand-bells; her tone recalls Vini Reilly from the Durutti Column, or The Edge if you unplugged all his effects pedals and heard what he was playing underneath.
No one wanted a “departure” on this new album; besides, the xx sound is so naked, it’d be hard to reconstruct the three or four elements into something new. But Coexist is different. The NME complained that the new single “Angels” was too happy, because Romy appeared to be in love (“you move through the room like breathing was easy”) rather than communing with the ghost of some past relationship.
It’s a brief little record, gone in 37 minutes but it’s more immediate than their debut – Sim and Croft have been pulled right to the front of the mix and are so in-sync, they’re practically on top of each other. Smith, who remixed Gil Scott Heron’s last album, appears to have learned from working with a voice he couldn’t mess with, allowing Croft and Sim to stand on their own here too, with a lot of air and silence. Croft sounds older on “Sunset” and “Reunion”, rather like Tracey Thorn, while Sim, whose mumbling often makes lyrics sound throwaway, handles words more robustly – “we used to be closer than this/Is it something you miss?” (“Chained”). It’s the same but different – less downcast, more gracious. Like a teenager who’s started looking you in the eye.
Which doesn’t mean to say it’s less miserable. With a more confident, performative attitude to the same gripes of early adulthood, the xx may be even grimmer than before. When I want to get sad, I watch Mask, the 1986 film about Rocky Dennis with Cher in it. Others will put on Coexist, and plunge themselves into a deep and luxurious state of musical atrophy. Different strokes for different folks: it’s the wanting to get sad that’s weird in the first place.