Of the many artists who have entirely passed me by, The xx are probably the best known. Somehow I totally missed their initial successes, failed to notice their huge cult explosion, and entirely avoided their moments in the limelight. That wouldn’t be so unusual now, but ten years ago, when this album first came out, that was a bit strange. But it’s no reason to avoid them now.
Their debut xx opens with Intro, a meandering guitar piece which strolls gradually along, with ethereal male vocals and a strummed bass line. Then comes VCR, a number 132 single in 2010. Meandering is the key – there’s a somewhat jaunty glockenspiel line, but otherwise this is a slow, almost plodding track with a vocal about watching old videos.
Their debut single was Crystalised, which just missed out on the Top 100 in early 2009. It gradually builds into a sort of lo-fi, less electronic version of New Order, maybe with a bit of a bluesy feel thrown into the mix. It’s good, and easy to nod along to, but it’s also difficult to reconcile with The xx‘s huge acclaim. This was a Mercury Prize-winning album, and they were winning awards left, right, and centre. Why?
Perhaps the answer lies in Islands, their biggest hit – to date, actually – having hit number 34 and reaching silver certification in late 2009. Not particularly, unfortunately. If you wanted to be unkind, you would pick up on another gently strummed guitar line and the self same instrumentation as the last few tracks. That’s not really fair, as the vocal delivery is interesting, and there are some nice electronic drums, but can you honestly repeat any of the lyrics? Seems unlikely.
These are short tracks, though, and already we’re nearly half way through with Heart Skipped a Beat. The ethereal feel that we had at the start is back here, with some softer, higher sounds. This might be my favourite track so far, actually.
Some of the songs would make for interesting film soundtrack moments – Fantasy is a bit vague still, but there’s a lovely gentle feel to it, and the sort of bass part that makes you want to check your heart is still functioning as it should.
But something still doesn’t quite seem right – I wonder if it is the lyrics, after all. Shelter contains the couplet “Could I be, was I there? / It felt so crystal in the air.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? It’s atmospheric, yes, but surely that’s pretty lazy lyric writing, isn’t it? Or maybe The xx‘s lyrics aren’t intended to be scrutinised quite that closely – maybe the mood is the thing here after all?
But if that’s true, it would be nice to have some variety – this is a nice album, but it is pretty samey so far. Well, until Basic Space, anyway – the electronic backing is muted, but it’s beautifully glitchy. It’s even got a nice, catchy chorus too. This came along just in time, didn’t it?
Infinity keeps it going as well – it’s got some wonderful percussion, punctuating the vocals, and the sauntering guitar work is well placed too. These last couple of tracks almost make that Mercury Prize win worthwhile! Or maybe I’m just starting to get used to it, finally.
You do get the impression that The xx might be best enjoyed live, in a dark club, probably with some plant-based narcotics on hand. Listening to the album feels a bit like fundamentally missing the point. Night Time is a bit of a mess of beats and Peter Hook-like strumming, but it’s a nice mess, nonetheless. Closing track Stars is spacious and pleasant, although still perhaps seems a little forgettable for a closing track.
So xx is either a mixed bag, or takes a bit of getting used to, but it does end up in a nice place. Ten years on, it still has its indie charm, even if it does feel a bit wrong not to see them perform any of this live. One day, maybe.
You can still find xx at all major retailers, although possibly only as an import.