In a fine tradition that runs from Pink Floyd’s DSotM all the way to the optical psychedelica of Merriweather Post Pavilion, xx’s album art goes some way towards communicating a precise idea of what the album is about. Like the music contained within it’s minimal and strongly defined formally, but elusive in terms of significance. Is it a white cross on a black background or a cross-shaped hole filled by a white background? By the time you’ve decided one way or the other you might just begin to see the argument for the opposite. Similarly, whilst the record’s sound can be defined as running a narrow spectrum from sober, stripped down R&B to clear-headed, abstinent electro-pop – precise guitars interlock, sparse programmed drums skitter and negative space is employed in abundance – what they’re trying to say with these formal qualities is harder to define.
The music is a blank canvas, a Rorschach splatter. There are oceans of notes that aren’t being played, a universe of silent space between the meticulously trimmed guitar notes. Whilst the intimate conversations that play out between Croft and Sim’s vocals on Basic Space – typical of the whole album – could be declarations of undying love (I think I’m losing where you end and I begin) or pleas born from a seedier lust (Hot wax has left me with a shine), it almost seems improper to say even that. There’s a multitude of interpretations to be drawn from the same reflective vocals. Blatancy doesn’t seem to reside in the group’s vocabulary and the album’s vocals generate a sense of thrilling voyeurism – more of a daring burlesque than a cheap lapdance. Like the teary couple of the last bus home (and it would be the last bus, given xx’s nocturnal quality) you can’t be entirely sure if the intent of the half-grasped words is one of violence or intimacy, but that doesn’t stop you filling in the gaps and creating a back-story for your own satisfaction.
What could be summed up as a definite attempt at sounding indefinite sounds like the faintest of praise, and it would be downright frustrating with most other bands, but the XX perform it ably and with much more conviction and ability. The Rear Window voyeurism of the lovelorn conversations seems intentional when complimented with the loosely sketched nature of the music. Desperately undeveloped compositions that stop and start, build momentum from the slightest cues (such as the insistent rhythm guitar charge that ebbs and flows on Crystalised and the spidery lead guitar it gives way to) and ride out on long sections where the melody and rhythm is intensified by what isn’t written as well as what is seems like the perfect way to compliment a lover’s quiet desperation and the brief windows of insight into it.
The production has its own tricks besides complimenting the central drama at the heart of the xx, too. The influences are obvious, but the sound is genuinely fresh-sounding – falling somewhere that could be partially described as the lovechild of a laconic Interpol and a less nervy Idioteque. Working tirelessly on the mantra that less is more, Wicked Game, reverb-drenched guitars linger in the generous gaps whilst crisp, post-garage drums that generate a surprising amount of movement and head-nodding groove without compromising the light, airy construction by employing too much force. There’s almost something Gilmouresque (without the Prog) in how the band seem to know which notes not to play and how to wrangle as much moody atmosphere out of the one’s they do decide to pick.
With such a wrought out and considered tendency towards the minimal, it’s hard to imagine where the band could go next without transforming their sound completely or over burdening it to the point of collapse. The tease works for now because you only suspect you saw something. Made any more blatant and it’ll lose that winking tease and fall into the realm of blatant, unimaginative R&B tribute; made any slighter, it’ll disappear into the air. Remixes of Florence and the Machine and the formless, post-apocalyptic Fantasy hint towards dancier, dubbier or more ambient influences for their sophomore effort; if it’s as well thought out and executed as this, that shift in sound is in an able pair of hands.