Happy 10th Anniversary to The xx’s debut album xx, originally released August 14, 2009.
Music has often been called the soundtrack of our lives. Providing us with touchpoints for memories, people and places. A good song can cement a memory. A great song becomes a time machine capable of transporting you through time and space. Growing up, music wasn’t just an escape for me, it was a lifeline. A running narrative of reflection. I absorbed all kinds of music. Anything that moved me, whether engaging my head, heart or feet. I soon found myself paying more and more attention to lyrics and their multileveled meanings.
As a kid, I was guided through music by my brother, four years my senior. Together we’d form bands with neighborhood kids at the start of the summer and see them disband when the seasons changed. I started writing lyrics really early on and fell in love with all that the written word could convey, what it could allude to and what it could hide in plain sight. As I entered my teen years, I’d find myself writing multiple lyrics and songs each night. Anything to express the feelings swirling around in my life. Not really aimed for a wider audience, but made to just get feelings out, the fear, pressures, isolation, longing—you know the usual stuff for a teenager amped by his own self-importance.
As the teenage years melded into early adulthood, music continued playing a vital role, scoring my life with each new album I discovered. And lyrics became increasingly important. So when I first heard of The xx, I felt a sort of kinship to the chief songwriters, singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft and singer-bassist Oliver Sim. Both somewhat self-imposed introverts with extroverted desires and callings, they would fashion their songs through an email exchange. A sonic game of ping-pong that would see them sending each other lyrics and musical ideas, building on them and flicking the file back. This kind of outside-the-music-looking-in approach is palpable in their debut outing, xx. Joined by muso-producer Jamie Smith (now known as Jamie xx) and guitarist Baria Qureshi, the quartet crafted an album of immense beauty and longing.
From the aptly named “Intro,” the xx draw you into their world of melancholy, desire and dreams and never let you go. Over the course of the ensuing and brief 38 minutes they peel back layers of intimate reflections and late night musings as lead vocalists Croft and Sims trade lines and verses in a way that presents an intriguing “he said/she said” narrative to each track. Described by Sims as the lyrics existing “in parallel” rather than in conversation, this structure of songwriting and delivery doesn’t come across as a gimmick but rather a necessity of expression, as if each voice would be silenced without the support of the other.
The songs are haunting. Filled with space and silence to let you drift into them. Instead of being weighed down by dense, multitracked production, Smith lets the songs float into the ether and pull you in. It’s this sense of space that sets The xx and especially this debut album apart from their contemporaries. Drawing on influences from trip-hop, hip-hop and R&B, the group fashion songs that shimmer and softly sparkle just a little out of reach and focus.
Supported by sparse beats and minimalist production, the album offers glimpses of dream pop on “Islands,” “Night Time” and the drawn-out intensity of the guitar-tinged “Crystalised” that finds the vocalists defying a sense of unity by singing over the top of each other with dueling narratives rather than synched up harmonies.
For the most part though, the album draws its strength not in propulsion and racing momentum but in its willingness, maybe even a necessity, to reside in a meandering, quiet ambience of solace. This is best displayed on tracks like the slow build or no-build of “VCR” with a nod to the moods created by Joy Division, the anxiously jittery “Infinity,” and the stark heartache of “Shelter.”
If you haven’t listened to the album in a while (or ever), I recommend you find time to. Draw the blinds. Turn off the lights. Silence your notifications. And let the music paint vast, evolving pictures in your mind as the lyrics surround you with a sense of intimacy that only comes from surrendering to silence and space.
Released 10 years ago, the ongoing appeal of xx is in its quiet confidence. Rather than bursting onto the scene, both band and album seemed content to slowly emerge and reveal themselves, which makes the process of listening to the album in its entirety even more rewarding.