In spite of information technology's vast capabilities to connect us, isolation and loneliness are pervasive and persistent in the 21st century. Even beyond adolescence, when most of us feel alien inside our own bodies, every aspect of culture is becoming increasingly fragmented. The sound of another voice expressing our same doubts and fears is reassuring, and despite declining record sales, many still turn to music for help navigating the landscape.
Case in point: British trio The xx. Barely out of high school, Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft, Jamie Smith and Baria Qureshi — the latter of whom has since left the band — rocketed into the limelight on the strength of their self-titled debut album in 2009. Their music is positively minimal next to the massive pop productions of other contemporary chart-toppers — even their labelmate Adele sounds orchestral by comparison.
Beat craftsman and keyboardist Smith provides a rhythmic skeleton, with influences from hip-hop production and electronic dance genres like house, while Oliver and Romy supply resonant bass lines and spectral guitar and keyboard figures, which ring out like echoes of Cure records on a turntable down the hall. Their soul-inflected vocals barely rise above a whisper. The overall effect is a strong feeling of intimacy, almost as if the sounds came from inside your head.
The appeal of this less-is-more approach, combined with smart moves by management and label, broke the band rapidly. The xx ranked among the Top 10 on seven different national music charts, and has combined sales to date of over 750,000 copies in the U.K. and U.S. The xx's debut won the band the Mercury Prize in 2010, a very high honor for any alternative British artist and especially for a first album. It peaked at No. 92 on the Billboard 200 in the United States, and found an enormous audience through NBC, who licensed the song "Intro" for extensive use during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
With the bar set high for a follow-up, band and label wisely gave it time to develop. Between tours, Smith produced We're New Here, a remix of Gil Scott-Heron's final album, and all three members took gigs DJing in clubs before reconvening to record in late 2011. Coexist, released in September, is both more sonically spare and more lyrically refined than their first effort.
"It's kind of a happy accident, our sound," Croft tells the Scene in a conversation shortly before The xx begin their North American tour. "The main thing for us is that everything's playable live. In the beginning, we weren't that good with our instruments. I couldn't sing and play complicated guitar riffs. ... [Our sound] didn't seem minimal to us."
With Croft leading the art direction, the group put considerable effort into making Coexist an enjoyable piece of tangible memorabilia, with photographs and full lyric sheets for each song — perhaps that's one reason why the record edged out the 40th anniversary reissue of Ziggy Stardust as 2012's best-selling vinyl in the U.K. Cleverly combining artistic and economic goals, The xx sought out a way to offer that same experience to downloaders. The result is a free interactive app for iOS and Android platforms, which includes the photos and lyric sheets, visualizer videos and links to the band's news feed and Web store.
"I remember growing up, I would go to the music shop and buy my CD," says Croft. "I would sit there and study the lyrics, and really immerse myself in the music. I think you miss that sometimes with downloading. Things are changing. You have to be aware that a lot of people have smartphones, and these apps are trying to express your ideas to your fans."
One further challenge is bringing those ideas to a massive live audience: Though The xx began playing in clubs and bars, audiences number in the tens of thousands at festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella.
"You're so exposed, but it's a very unique rush," Croft says of festival appearances. "It's not something we prepared for, but you get thrown in at the deep end, and you learn so much."
Continuing their efforts to play memorable concerts, they have thoroughly integrated the light show and other visuals with their performance. "We've actually adapted our set so that it's more upbeat," says Croft. "We still like to keep the very spare moments in, and keep a lot of intimacy. ... We want to keep it an amazing live experience."
So far, The xx's approach seems to be working on audiences worldwide: Coexist has already surpassed its predecessor, topping both the U.K. Albums and Indie Albums charts and debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. They've also impressed the nominating body for the BRIT awards, the U.K. equivalent of our Grammys: It was announced Jan. 10 that The xx is in the running for Best British Band, along with Alt-J, Mumford & Sons and One Direction. Pretty good for a band whose sound is a happy accident.