This record’s biggest task is not to disappoint too much. Coexist, though, really doesn’t disappoint at all. Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith may have stuck close to the template of their first album – Coexist is yet another barely there album in which the dawn seems far away – but it’s hard to imagine anyone minding, so compelling is their signature sound. Platonic soulmates Madley Croft and Sim still trade lyrics about love misfiring, while their schoolfriend (and now in-demand DJ, remixer and producer) Smith brings the desolation of dubstep and the ghosts of distant raves to the mix. In a recent interview, Sim urged people not to worry about them. Their affective modus operandi is still just a call away from the Samaritans and not without a certain black comedy. “Did I not let enough light in?” asks crepuscular, whispering Madley Croft on Chained. Love is still their metier. Here, they skin the cat of relationship trouble 13 more ways.
In the first act, Angels finds Madley Croft playing the xx’s trademark bell-like guitar and crooning a post-R&B lullaby, just like someone flipped their debut over on to another undiscovered third side.
But for all this cleaving to their template there are great leaps forward if you listen closely. Smith has spent the past three years remixing furiously (Florence and the Machine, Adele), producing A-list rapper Drake and moving dancefloors; his ear is sharper and Coexist is yet another masterpiece of lush asceticism. Reunion and its close successor, Sunset, come quite close to dancefloor bangers, if you recalibrate your ears: no pattern here hangs around for more than a couple of bars, and rarely in multiples of four. There is so little sound here and yet so much atmosphere, punctuated by the xx’s little sonic signatures. Their guitar sound recalls the pealing of U2′s the Edge crossed with an arpeggiating Jamaican steel pan. Then there are the actual, sampled steel pans, used widely throughout Coexist, adding sweetness and suspense.
Missing, meanwhile, is what passes for a big, crass, mainstream pop hit in the xx’s submerged world. It boasts the most shameless build they have ever constructed. Sim sings, Madley Croft pitches in with soulful ululations. Mid-song, they swap over. First, though, Smith inserts a few seconds of radio silence: so pregnant you want to give it your seat on the bus.