Ask a fan of The xx what their least favorite record in the band’s discography is, and they will likely tell you it’s Coexist. It lacks the immediacy and effective songwriting of the self-titled debut; it doesn’t push the band’s style into fresh directions like its follow-up, I See You, does. For the most part, Coexist is understated and subtle, which is honestly a feat for a trio so heavily associated with minimalism. The xx, comprising guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft, bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim and producer Jamie xx, helped popularize the “stripped-down/chill” paradigm that was so prominent in indie music at the time. Although it’s fair to say that the British group’s second album is their weakest entry, I’m also something of a Coexist defender.
The xx’s eponymous 2009 debut relies mostly on single-string guitar hooks, muted basslines and synthesized percussion. Through only these three components, the Londoners wrung everything they could out of them. They managed to achieve variety without stretching themselves thin, going on to earn the 2010 Mercury Prize for their efforts. On songs like “Heart Skipped a Beat,” “VCR” and the ever-ubiquitous “Intro,” they proved themselves capable of doing much with virtually nothing. The basic space, arguably an instrument itself, was just as important as what surrounded it.
For their sophomore album, they kept that space intact and added more layers. It’s an expansion on what The xx were already known for, but with more intricate, refined production. This is in large part due to its clubby milieu. Coexist pays homage to the famous dance scene in their native city with its arsenal of soft 808s, filtered house beats and smooth transitions (just listen to the seamless way “Reunion” bleeds right into “Sunset”). Shortly after the release of xx, Jamie Smith, better known by his sobriquet Jamie xx, began performing solo sets as a live DJ, and he used many of the techniques he learned along the way for Coexist. Smith also produced Drake’s Take Care title track and remixed jazz legend Gil Scott-Heron’s final album, now with the new title, We’re New Here, in his spare time. Now that he had honed his production chops considerably, he had quite a few more tricks up his sleeve.
As a result, Coexist foreshadows Smith’s singular 2015 solo album, In Colour, which would launch him to unlikely stardom and second-line festival fonts. He hasn’t released a proper successor yet, aside from some exceptional singles like “LET’S DO IT AGAIN” earlier this year and “Idontknow” in 2020, but In Colour holds enough weight to last a lifetime. Listen closely, and you can hear his ideas for his own music gestating on Coexist. There are the steel drums from “Reunion” that show up on Smith’s own “Obvs,” and the filtered, stop-start dance beats from “Sunset” adopt a more dramatic variation on “Sleep Sound.” The sampling may not be as abundant as it would be on I See You, but “Chained” opens with the cymbal wash from The Crusaders’ 1974 cut “Lilies of the Nile.”
Coexist also contains some of the biggest hallmarks of The xx’s career to date. The opening one-two punch of “Angels” and “Chained” is worth a shout-out. This record usually gets the least amount of representation in the band’s recent sets, but “Angels” has become their go-to closer. Such a spacious ballad may seem like a peculiar choice to end a live show with, but it’s such a gorgeous love song that it makes for a perfect conclusion before the night drive back home. It mostly hinges on reverb-drenched guitar and Croft’s words of longing and tenderness. She speaks to the ineffable essence of love, how it’s such a powerful feeling that words can never accurately describe what it is to experience it: “And with words unspoken / A silent devotion / I know you know what I mean / And the end is unknown / But I think I’m ready / As long as you’re with me.” It’s a strong contender for their best song.
“Chained” is an exercise in escalation. Over the course of roughly three minutes, it slowly builds from a bassline and off-beat hi-hat, incorporating more elements every eight or so measures: a synth pad here, a snare click there; an extra hit on the kick drum here, an extra hi-hat note there. If you’re not paying close enough attention, then it can be easy to miss the subtlety. It sums up how the trio blends the grand and the sparse, the sophisticated and the simple.
Still, just as Coexist showcases some of the group’s best work, it also includes their more forgettable material. There isn’t anything truly atrocious on this record, but there are definitely some tracks that fail to stand out when compared to others. “Swept Away,” despite its entrancing, ornate house beat, has the unenviable fate of following the affecting late-album highlight “Unfold.” “Missing” falls prey to an admittedly mawkish “heartbeat” drum pattern meant to mirror Sim’s lyric, “My heart is beating in a different way.” Meanwhile, “Tides” simply feels out of place, with dueling vocal melodies, a basic beat and eerie synth-strings that don’t mesh well together.
Though Coexist can be inconsistent at times, Croft and Sim hold everything together with their tales of unrequited love and damaged relationships. The centerpiece “Sunset” is one of the more devastating tracks, detailing how two lovers have drifted apart to become total strangers. “It felt like you really knew me / Now it feels like you see through me,” Croft sings, her voice barely above a whisper. “Unfold” recounts a one-sided romance, with Sim refusing to acknowledge his partner’s growing disinterest in him: “Am I blind, you move your hand away from mine / And I don’t take it as a sign that you’re any less than mine.”
One of the finest facets of this band has always been how Croft and Sim’s voices complement each other. Sim’s huskier, lower register serves as a foundational backbone to Croft’s softer, higher textures. Both vocalists sing in hushed tones and often an octave apart, rather than harmonizing in thirds or fourths; it’s yet another aspect of the music that benefits from their commitment to simplicity. It’s also a testament to how all three of its members share equal space, with neither of the two taking the lead melody while the other is isolated to background duties. Although they trade verses occasionally, they often sound best when singing in unison, and there’s no shortage of that on Coexist. For instance, the heartfelt closer, “Our Song,” is a prime example that stands among the trio’s best work.
Coexist is something of a transitional record, getting The xx where they needed to be before their sample-heavy, resplendent third album. Aside from that, though, it also helped give way to a masterpiece like In Colour, and Sim and Croft have started delving into the realm of solo music since then, too. Coexist seamlessly blends the two styles of the records that bookend it, ultimately attaining its own identity in the process as the soft, yet danceable xx entry. It retains the mellow melancholy of their debut while integrating the house-indebted elements of what would come after it. Even if Coexist is the weakest xx album, it’s still an important stepping stone for one of the definitive indie groups of the 2010s. It still finds a way to stand on its own.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.