THE SHEER subtlety of The xx makes their 2009 debut all the greater. The winners of the 2010 Mercury Prize produced what is heralded as one of the best debuts to come out of the 2000s, perhaps, even, of all time. Rather than come out of nowhere with a bang, the London
quartet trio slid into the limelight with a set of gloriously downbeat numbers that caught the public’s attention.
Unlike other shoegaze meets RnB acts, such as Portishead, The xx’s had strange joyous undertones. Not even the hushed, whispered vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim could dampen the uplifting guitars in ‘VCR’ or ‘Islands’. But their voie bring through the bittersweet nature of xx; while there’s often pining, heartbreak and lust within these words, it’s underpinned with the nature of friendship and youthful wonder.
Complimented by the reverb laden guitars and poignant bass lines, xx is held together by the glue that is Jamie Smith. His hip-hop and garage inspired beats are a surprisingly excellent addition to the group, and, without which, this album would be considerably different. Just listen to how he turns ‘Basic Space’ into a catchy (sort of) banger, or how ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Infinity’ become dreamy, dark, atmospheric pieces of art. It’s no surprise then that his debut solo album in 2015 was incredible, but I digress.
Even with its genre specific influences, xx ticks many boxes when appealing to a wide audience. Its obvious hip hop and RnB influence pulls in those who enjoyed cuts from the lighter side of both the UK and the US, such as Alicia Keyes. Then there’s the guitars and alternative rock influence, one and the same with Foals, Bloc Party, and, perhaps most clearly, Radiohead. Then the muted vocals pave way to comparisons to Portishead and the darker cuts from Bjork and PJ Harvey’s mid-nineties work. But even with these descriptions, xx is a difficult album to pigeon hole.
But it doesn’t really matter when every track is so damn good. The opening quartet of ‘Intro’, ‘VCR’, ‘Crystalised’ and ‘Islands’ is like the soundtrack to every emotional TV drama scene or mobile phone advert in 2009. Thankfully now, seven years later, the hype has passed and we can truly appreciate just how excellent these songs are. But even the deeper cuts on this record are great. ‘Shelter’ is a beautifully passionate number where Madley Croft gives one of her best vocal performances. The penultimate song, ‘Night Time’, is one of the best tracks on the album, with Brian Eno like opening synths, and Smith’s beats taking the song to new heights while losing none of its wondrous integrity.
Despite its minimal approach, xx feels vast, imposing and incredible. Yet this contrasts excellently with its close, personal and beautifully worded lyrics. It’s no surprise this album went on to win so many accolades and inspire future British musicians.
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