The xx – xx: Throwback 10

The game-changing debut that altered our modern pop music landscape turns 10.

Where was the first time you heard The xx?  A part of me feels like it may have been earlier than this, but my most specific memory of initial exposure to their music was in an advert for failed Channel 4 reality-documentary show Seven Days.  The series was a partly-fly-on-the-wall docusoap where viewers would follow a bunch of random Notting Hill families through the past week of their extremely mundane lives (as in the actual past week at the time of each episode’s airing) and the advert went for this conceptual, cheesy, pre-Black Mirror-y monologue collage of actors set to the Massive Attack-reminiscent “Intro.”  The chilly harsh guitar plucks backed by enormous-sounding drums combined with the drone-like monologue delivery and underlying urban hum to create a show that sounded way more intriguing than the end result, but even after the show had come and very swiftly gone I was entranced by that song.

It felt cold yet also somehow warm.  It had traces of the emo that pretty much my entire family was into at the time yet less accusatory and masculine than the majority of that scene.  As somebody with worn-through copies of Blue Lines and Mezzanine, I recognised the “Unfinished Sympathy” by way of “Man Next Door” genesis points but the song also treasured the empty spaces around its instrumentation so much more heavily than Massive Attack did.  And as a then-lapsed pop music fan who felt disillusioned by the David Guetta/Calvin Harris/Black Eyed Peas/Lady Gaga et al chokehold on the radio airwaves but was far too teenage and NME-reading to readily admit it at the time, I instantly recognised the underlying pop melodies and structure whilst also being utterly astonished by the idea that pop music, a maximalist brash assault on the senses, could sound anything like this.  After much sleuthing around the net, I discovered the name, the band performing it, and the album it was from.  Needing more, I booted up Spotify, plugged my gummy earphones into my family’s shared creaky laptop, and pressed play on xx, which turns 10 in the UK today.

That was my first time.  You most likely have one as well because by the time I was first introduced in mid-July of 2010 because it turned out that The xx and their album were absolutely everywhere at that point.  The debut’s songs were soundtracking Grey’s Anatomy, Winter Olympics commercials, the BBC’s General Election coverage, climactic montages in Waterloo Road.  They were the name on many an online music blog’s lips, including a rave in Pitchfork that effectively made them in the US, and placing in the upper echelon of damn-near everyone’s Best Albums of 2009 lists if not topping them outright.  Two months after I first heard the album, xx would win the 2010 Mercury Prize.  All without any major support from the typical British music industry infrastructure – Radio 1 didn’t playlist their singles, NME avoided giving them major coverage until they absolutely couldn’t afford not to, and only one of their singles cracked the UK Top 40.

And that’s assuming you weren’t way cooler and more in-tune with the scene than I was at the time and were therefore already listening heavily to the record before it blew up, as the soundtrack to parties and makeout sessions and mixtapes the nation over.  It is almost impossible to overstate how prescient and influential xx has been on pop music over the last decade, I’d even cite it as one of the five key records from which all of our current pop music landscape draws from in some way or another – for those curious, they are (in chronological order) 808s & Heartbreak, xx, James Blake, Born to Die, and Pure Heroine.  Much like that old Brian Eno quote of The Velvet Underground never having broken any sales records but every single one of their fans having gone on to start their own band, xx wasn’t an out and out blockbuster record but its cult grew strong and fierce and attracted some big-name fans who would relentlessly go about mining its sound for inspiration in the following years.

The Chainsmokers owe their entire post-“#selfie” career to appallingly crossbreeding xx’s minimalism and vibes with a post-EDM bounce.  Drake’s mainstream crossover domination was effectively set in motion when he and Rihanna retrofitted Jamie xx’s “I’ll Take Care Of U” rework (from 2011’s Gil Scott-Heron remix project We’re New Here) into a smash R&B duet which sent the then-rapper into the Top 10 the world over (and that wasn’t even the first time Rihanna remixed xx music for her own work).  Frank Ocean was definitely listening in, even if it wouldn’t be until the Endless/Blond duology for that influence to really make itself known.  Our gradual slide into the monogenre, the kind of music that’s not quite any one specific genre and favours a soothing vibe for easy playlist flow more than anything else, has its roots here.  But as James Rettig of Stereogum put in his own anniversary write-up of the album:

xx was never disengaged like that.  Despite its minimalism, it’s not background listening; it’s listening that takes over your entire body. The music is still and it forces everything else to be still around it. It’s like good architecture: a constant game of wondering how they could possibly do all that.”

But I’m not here to remind you of how The xx helped shape our cross-genre monopop utopia/hellscape (delete depending on personal preference), not when you can get that elsewhere from the hundreds of other anniversary pieces on the record.  Nor am I going to regurgitate the tale of how Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith, and Baria Qureshi (who was removed from the group shortly after touring for the album began) came together and crafted such a masterpiece and how they’ve never been able to live up to it and blah blah blah.  You likely already know all of this and none of it is the reason why I mentally insisted that I needed to pen upwards of 3,000 words to mark the record’s decade of existence.  No, I’m here today commemorating xx at 10 because it was a lightning strike record whose effects have heavily shaped me to this day.

A “lightning strike record” for me is a record that hits you with such a complete and total force the instant you press play on your first listen that you become absolutely incapable of listening to or thinking about anything else for weeks afterwards.  That this record has such an effect upon you that it becomes an actual obsession, the album you reach for in your lowest moments for comfort, the LP that seems to reorient your entire worldview, the full-length that never ever seems to wear out and whose pleasures are just as potent several years down the line as they are in the aftermath of that first listen, the disc you need to know every single lyric to and learn every last instrument part of back-to-front immediately.  Crucially, the “lightning strike record” needs to be one that blindsides you with no prior expectations and almost no prior exposure to it beforehand.  This is not when a favoured band suddenly ascends to another level or an anticipated record delivers in every aspect; the surprise factor is crucial, it needs to arrive like a bolt out of the blue.

By my criteria, I can count the number of “lightning strike records” I have experienced to date on one hand: LCD Soundystem’s Sound of Silver, The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike (fittingly), Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock, and this.  xx changed my life.

It was 2010.  I was entering my final year of Secondary School.  A hormone-riddled, mildly-popular, acceptably weird, self-hating and somewhat egocentric teenager prone to bouts of intense loneliness and melancholy I could never quite explain or understand.  I had crushes but never acted upon them both out of a deep shame for having destroyed a long-standing friendship the year prior over my inability to get over those feelings (and just-straight up being an asshole) and having no idea what to do in a relationship if I did get a girlfriend anyway.  (How little difference a decade makes, wocka wocka.)  Yet, I was also a hopeless romantic at heart with a soft-spot for rom-coms and a desire for non-sexual intimacy and deep feelings which clashed heavily with my ill-fitting efforts at performative masculinity.  (Needless to say, my gender dysphoria and biromanticism weren’t going concerns in the hotbox of a working-class gender-normative secondary school in a tiny Midlands British village.)  I was happy, I think, but still felt like I didn’t quite belong.  Lunch and break times I would eschew playground hangouts to squirrel myself away in various corners writing or listening to music away from most everyone else, sometimes attempting to make myself moodier but most other times just trying to find comfort on days when I felt awful.

And xx was like some perfect tonic made to my exact specifications sent down from the heavens.  We can talk for hours about all the ways it stood apart from both the pop and alternative music scenes of 2009 and 2010 – the usage of negative space, the almost whispery nature of the vocals, how quiet the album often is so listeners need to actually turn it up if they want to hear it loudly just like albums should be mixed – but honestly it’s the intimacy of the thing that does it.  Everything about the record is designed to foster this sensation of being sat in a room somewhere in the dead of night with the person closest to you in the whole world.  Recording in what was effectively label XL’s garage after all the other staff members went home, prioritising practical live set-ups by stripping songs down to their bare essentials, even the fact that Romy and Oliver have the same vocal timbre just singing in different pitches, all of that cultivates the mood.  It’s arresting, it’s comforting, it is, despite how “Intro” may sound when placed in as many different contexts as it has been, warm.

You can crawl into this record and… maybe not so much “luxuriate” or “relax” but rest in it with astonishing ease.  Romy and Baria’s guitars alternately cut through and soothe, one minute they’re ping-ponging around in a rush of excitement on “Night Time” and the next they’re tenderly picking along with the heartstrings of “Heart Skips a Beat.”  Jamie’s beats, in the throbbing footwork pulse of “Islands” and the Timbaland-y clatter of “Basic Space,” betray his fascination with electronica and keep the songs tethered to particular moments in time like scenes from a movie.  Romy and Oliver’s understated and occasionally uncertain vocal deliveries and interplay reinforce that kind of teenage awkwardness, a burning desire for intimacy yet also finding its encroachment kind of anxious and uncomfortable due to not always having the right words or feelings to communicate one’s emotions.  So, the songs break through the background, they command the attention because they’re so specifically drawn and emotionally instant, like the listener is participating in these somewhat important relationship snapshots themselves, alternately comforting and mildly upsetting but always involving.  You can fall asleep to this record in a mild bliss, but you’re just as often too engaged in the moment to do so.  (This is what a lot of the monogenre Spotifycore devotees fail to grasp, not unlike the trip-hop bandwagoners of the mid-to-late 90s.)

And so we resort to sex.  Almost every song on xx is about sex.  They’re also about intimacy – of first love and tentative first dates, of relationships falling apart in various ways, of people trying to heal fissures through intimacy, of fantasising about intimacy – but they’re mainly about sex.  The vinyl edition makes it even more blatant by including a cover of Aalyiah’s “Hot Like Fire” at the end of Side A, although this was a fact that flew over my dunderheaded asexual ass for years and years and years.  Yet, unlike with certain other artists who traffic in artsy minimalism – like, say, alt-j whose entire appeal hysterically falls apart once the realisation sets in that their lyrics are almost entirely morose pretentious takes on “I’m fucking” and “I’m self-fucking” – that lightbulb moment hasn’t dulled the connection I have with the band, their music, or this album specifically.

Part of it may be because the sexually-charged dynamic and lyricism between Romy and Oliver is highly performative.  Both are gay.  Their hetero “boy-girl in love, lust and loss” dynamic on record is an act, at least on a literal reading.  Mainly, I feel it comes from the fact that the lyrics often work just as well as platonic declarations of love and intimacy as they do romantic or sexual declarations of desire (something the band’s later albums would make more explicit).  “VCR” is achingly, wrenchingly romantic when read as a contented ballad between two lovers, but it also has much the same effect when read as two inseparable life partners being able to cling to each other in the chaos of their lives outside.  “I think we’re superstars/You say you think we are the best thing/But you/You just know/You just do.”  “Infinity” is about former sexual partners separated by great distance failing to get over their past relationship together, but the emotions behind those sentiments transfer almost entirely if read without a sexual bent, two former friends regretful over a betrayal.

And even then, if you want to take the intentions at face value rather than finding an asexual bent, these lyrics still pull on so many of my romantic heartstrings.  Alternating between the metaphorical – “Basic Space” utilising the imagery of handcrafting through boiling wax for a consummated and symbiotic relationship – and the startlingly direct – Romy’s solo outing “Shelter” makes an utterly devastating chorus from “Maybe I had said something that was wrong/Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” whilst the mesemerically beautiful closer “Stars” begins with the triplet “I can give it all on the first date/I don’t have to exist outside of this place/And dear know that I can change.”  Mundane (“VCR”) and majestical (“Crystalised”).  That constant contrast between a carefully considered piece of poetic imagery (“Glaciers have melted to the sea/I wish the tide would take me over”) and an awkwardly stumbling sentiment that betrays their youth and demonstrates they’re only barely figuring it out just like any of us (“I am yours now/So now I don’t ever have to leave”).

It’s all just so powerful and beautiful and vulnerable in a way the broke down my defences, spoke right to the dreamer and femme parts of me that were at risk of being crushed out by my somewhat laddish guy-y behaviour I wasn’t fully comfortable with but pushing myself into being at the time due to the social circles of my school.  I listened through to this album on streaming dozens of times over the following month before begging my parents for the CD, mainly so that I would have the means to take it to school with me (via iPod ripping), and have definitely reached the multiple-thousands of runs in the years since.  It was a constant throughout my final year of Secondary School, later paired in a trios tag-team with Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights and Metric’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? during my disastrous time at Sixth Form, reliable standbys to retreat into when times got tough (and they indeed got tough).  Once I got a record player for Christmas 2014, this was always the first record I would check for whenever I took a sojourn into my then-local HMV and of course snapped up the second I finally found in-stock.  And I did indeed commit every single lyric to memory within that time, as well as attempting to learn Oliver’s bass parts on my guitar (those haven’t remained locked to memory unfortunately).

In that decade-long love affair, I have never once tired of xx.  There are minute aspects of almost every single song which still send shivers up my spine or spiral me right into my feels or shoot this sensation of comfort through me as if it were the first time.  The mirroring of the guitar and bass through the second verse of “Islands” with Romy’s guitar and Oliver’s bass always ascending and descending in opposite directions which only briefly meet in the middle.  The moment when Oliver’s bass drops in out of nowhere on “Fantasy” in a manner not all that dissimilar from the then-burgeoning dubstep movement after that metallic drone has hung in the air alone for a smidge long enough to start feeling uncomfortable.  The bit in “Night Time” where Romy’s run back through the second verse has Oliver arrive on a really low near-whispered harmony and it’s like the track has ascended star-ward.  And “Intro.”  Just every single second of “Intro,” one of the greatest album openers of all-time.

The accepted wisdom in many a music critic circle is that The xx have never come close to matching this debut in the decade since its release, although some will place Jamie’s solo record In Colour near its pedestal.  And, for sure, the now-trio have never managed to achieve a similar rewriting of the pop music rulebook in their works since, favouring a gradual refinement and general evolution in their sound.  But, as I have alluded to in the past, The xx are my band and so I find it impossible to share in that sentiment.  xx arrived in my life at a very specific time and managed to tailor itself to my specific emotional state and needs.  Coexist, which arrived in 2012 and saw the group take their minimalism to its most extreme limits and paired it with a more tumultuous and emotionally fraught series of lyrics about disintegrating empty relationships, somehow repeated that trick, as the shine of Sixth Form had been completely sandblasted away with all my friendships biting the dust and my academic abilities turning to shit along with them.  It was exactly the album I needed at that point in time in order to push through to the other side in the face of seeming hopelessness; something to comfort, to reflect my emotions back at me in a way that made them processable.  I’m not going to pretend it measures up equally to xx, but Coexist holds a special place in my heart for that.

Achieving that feat twice was surprising.  Achieving it a third time, with the aforementioned In Colour, sealed my intense relationship to The xx and everything they tangentially do for life.  A soaring, aching, emotional dance record for introverts – following on from 2011’s We’re New Here which started me dipping my toes into electronic music that wasn’t merely house but took me a few years to fully appreciate – which mirrored my experience at university, slowly coming out of my shell and gradually gaining more confidence in and acceptance of myself but not fully being there yet.  By then, I became convinced that this band has some kind of Being John Malkovich hotline to my mind, so uncanny has been their ability to drop music at exactly the point I need them most and in exactly the manner that matches my emotional development at that point in time.  And they just keep getting better doing so; 2017’s shimmering and hopeful yet anxious I See You genuinely may be their highwater mark as a trio, an equally as perfect pop record as their canonised debut from three friends who are older and wiser and less afraid to put themselves out there.

But it all began here.  10 years ago on release, 9 years ago on first-listen.  From those first palm-muted reverb-drenched notes through to the shared closing line: “Cos we can give it time, so much time, with me.”  The guitar pings down to its last note, the bass goes silent, and all that’s left is 10 seconds of ambient noise from the recording studio as the sentiment hangs in the air before abruptly cutting out.  I sit in that quiet for a good minute afterwards before cueing the album up again.

Callum Petch hates that tomorrow’s too soon but this collision came mid-bloom.

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