The XX – XX
Originally published in The Quietus , August 2009 – www.thequietus.com
Despite the egregious youth of its creators, the principal impression of this record is neither its melancholy nor its idealism, but the perfection of its musical judgement. Though critically-feted South London four-piece The XX have released just two singles and performed only a handful of shows, they’ve already developed a trademark langourous understatement, professing to record only what they can reproduce live. This album successfully brokers their style into an economically luxurious, musically complex, self-titled world, more than capable of laying any remotely susceptible human flat out, dreaming. There’s so much space in the stereo picture, you see; it follows that you’ll want to wander.
The album accomplishes a great deal with relatively few tools: the crystalline keyboards of Baria Qureshi; the Cooderish, Cure-ish, spare guitar of Romy Madley Croft; and the modal bass of Oliver Sim. Jamie Smith, the album’s producer-programmer, is principally responsible for its deceptively simple air, but its arrangements are intricately designed, taking in the click and bounce of R&B — a reverential cover of Aaliyah’s ‘Hot Like Fire’ is a live staple — and the gigantic boom and crunch of dubstep.
It’s not a perfect record, quite; ‘VCR’ in particular sounds comparatively unfinished, especially after the sinister, dry sweetness of the first track, ‘Intro’. There are some small structural issues too: on such an otherworldly album, the crisply perky ‘Basic Space’ and ‘Crystalised’ suffer somewhat from punctuating the mood (though this is merely a problem of context — released as singles, the strength of each is clear). The record seems to be built around a carefully constructed core, the killer one-two-three-four punch of ‘Islands’, ‘Heart Skips A Beat’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Shelter’. Each of these tracks sees a radical shift in perspective on a similar — perhaps a single — love story. One moment, great spaces are conjectured; the next, tones spill, break, and pool alongside the vocals. Miniscule tonal refractions are examined at length. These tracks tilt into one another; motifs trickle over edges, an outro becomes a chorus. Huge bass rumbles are still decaying bars later. Time travels backwards — “see you August, see you June” — and then fractures, light years away, before the heartbreaking refrain of ‘Shelter’ returns the attention to more human concerns and you realise how far away from being human you were, for a while. It’s impressively de-realising.
“I’ll see you August, see you June. I want fantasy. It’s deep in the middle of me.” Fantasy is deep in this record, in this sound: in the vocal unison (never harmony; they often sing as though unaware of one another) of childhood friends Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. Fantastical, the Coco-Rosie genderlessness of their dreamworlds — no him or her, only you you you. Most of all, the body fantastical, their central lyrical theme. Several tracks see the non-couple set up a dialectic, Sim describing the body’s external surfaces, Madley Croft its internal spaces, the fears they provoke, the succour they provide. “I can’t give it up to someone else’s touch”, coos Madley Croft in ‘Infinity’. “Give it up, give it up,” cajoles Sim (later boasting sadly, “I can give it up on the first date”, in the post-coital comedown of ‘Stars’.) The chorus of ‘Basic Space’ sees Sim sensually describing hot wax pouring over skin, before Madley Croft reveals that the wax seals in the body, insulates the track’s vital “basic space, open air”. A fascination with the space inside, where everything really happens, is this band’s biggest strength.