The cover of The xx’s sophomore album, Coexist, flaunts a brilliant “X.” This letter frames a beautiful, multicolored oil sheen, the result of two similar but fundamentally different liquids — oil and water — mixing into a whole but flawed assemblage doomed to never fully coalesce. Coexist isn’t quite a breakup album, but it is a meditation on the difficulties two separate entities face when they attempt a life of coexistence.
Coexist is an album about love slowly falling apart. When the passion between two people begins to wither and wane, it’s often difficult to identify such subtle emotional changes. In “Unfold,” Oliver Sim wearily sings, “You move your hand away from mine / I take it as a sign,” as a reverberated guitar strums restrained chords in the distance. Every phrase is subdued.
Sim and Romy Croft’s songwriting never expounds the act of breaking up. Instead, it paints a portrait of lovers heartbreakingly unable to comprehend the disintegration of their relationship. “You leave with the tide and I can’t stop you leaving / I can see it in your eyes some things that lost their meaning,” sing Sim and Croft in “Tides,” while nearly indiscernible percussion gives their observational lyrics a cold, ominous undertone.
The subtleties are worth noting: The subdued emotions expressed verbally are only accented by the minimal instrumentation that ebbs and flows throughout each song. At times, the instrumentation drops out completely, adding dire poignancy to the lyrics. This technique is realized effectively in “Missing” when Sim concludes, “Now there’s no hope for you and me,” a statement followed by five seconds of goosebump-inducing silence before a guitar howls desperately and the song lurches on.
Given the subject matter, the effectiveness of Croft and Sim’s vocals is staggering. The two discuss heartache in a call-and-response exchange, like a man and woman in a relationship speaking to each other, confessing their suffering. Yet the album remains awfully boring. The songs build no tension — strictly atmosphere. Subdued, minimalist music about disintegrating relationships isn’t always inherently boring, but The xx seem so intent on delving into their misery that their depressive introspection engulfs every song. As a result, listening to this album is like watching Jason Segel’s character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” cry through boxes of Kleenex after his girlfriend dumps him. His despair is so excessive it’s hilarious.
Coexist features The xx wallowing so gratuitously in their self-pity that what results is cringe-worthy melodrama and outright monotony. The album is the musical equivalent of listening to a teary friend explain their breakup: At first, you care and console; after 37 minutes of listening, you couldn’t be more bored.
What Coexist needs is a broader emotional spectrum. The group could learn from Beck, who created perhaps the greatest breakup album of all time with 2002’s Sea Change. On that album, songs such as “Sunday Sun” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” created a powerful contrast to “Lonesome Tears” and “Already Dead.” Sea Change is a horribly depressing album, mostly because the more optimistic numbers work to make the depressing songs even more depressing.
The closest The xx get to upbeat is the funky guitar/bass groove that ignites briefly into “Tides” — but Croft and Sim’s monotone vocals soon stagger over the top, negating any legitimate emotional dynamics. I admire Coexist for what it tries to be: a fusion of lovelorn music and lyrics meant to induce sadness. But as a whole, the album is humdrum. If you’re a fan expecting xx part two or another “Crystalized,” look elsewhere. If you’re a fan of “Days of Our Lives,” then — just maybe — this album might be for you.
2.5 out of 5 stars