Thou shalt not feign integrity. This is commandment number one in any post-punk, angst-filled band’s rulebook. Creating an original and atmospheric musical mood is a difficult and extremely risky endeavour. If you, God forbid, try too hard, then failure is a guarantee. If your intentions are in any way evident, then the listeners will see right through your elaborate façade, no matter how impressive your production work is. Contrive anguish and torment, and you’ll come off pretentious and fake. Aim for melancholy or sullenness, and chances are you’ll end up looking a self-righteous fraud.
South-Londoners, The xx, dress entirely in black and possess emotions that seem to flit between morose, to uninterested, and then back again. Their enigmatic stage presence is characterised by minimal movement and the much subtler, staring at the ground whilst looking coy. An intense peak of visual stimulation is achieved when bass player and vocalist, Oliver Sim, arches his left eyebrow ever so slightly. Yet for some reason, what The xx seem to have feels pure and completely authentic. The band’s eponymous debut beguiles, entrances and lulls you into a euphorically comatose state – one from which you may never want to arise.
The xx have created an album that is delightfully drowsy. It sounds as if it were made by a group of awkward, melancholic introverts that all suffer from chronic insomnia. Then one sleepless night they all decided to channel their moody personas into album form. After many late night recording sessions, several shots of espresso, and quite likely a few hits of speed, the album is complete; and by now this sense of the nocturnal and dark has deeply seeped into the fabric of the songs. Though the record does indeed sound as if its creators could hardly muster the vigour to complete it, it also holds the sensation of something tirelessly laboured over. The result of this contradiction is a shy, somnambulist yet passionate debut; one blanketed in an ethereal cloud of heartbreak and loss.
This is quite clearly a vocally dominated record that is shared by a boy and a girl – the boy being Oliver Sim, and the girl being the verbally gifted Romy Madley Coft. Their voices nimbly intertwine around each other and harmonise beautifully; the effect is truly mesmerising. With Oliver’s modest croon, and Romy’s exceptional voice, the two saunter around the minimal and malnourished backing of their band.
Minimal and malnourished are two words that do aptly encapsulate the sound and aesthetic of The xx’s instrument section. Stark and understated would work as well. Vague, resonant guitars and an edgy bass make up the band’s pathos-infused artillery. Add some delicate drumbeats that are electrified by subtle syncopated clicks, as well as the strategic use of surreal synthesised effects, and you have the sound of The xx. Though the music is undoubtedly sparse, it seamlessly fuses together to create an impossibly beautiful soundscape.
Despite the inexperience and youth of its creators, the overall feeling of this record is neither its bleakness nor its idealism, but the complete and utter excellence of its musical judgment. With their languorous and somnolescent understatements, The xx manage to freeze the mind, and then slowly release it to hitherto unrivalled horizons of splendour and pleasure. Lord knows it ain’t perfect, but it comes pretty damn close.