By Mandy Drake

Coy, sensual, sophisticated, emotional, exquisite. Many sumptuous (there’s another one) words were thrown at The xx’s eponymous debut album of 2009 – modern contemporary music’s quintessential ‘sleeper hit’ that crept in to pinch the Mercury Prize while the lights were off and everyone was screwing (or rather ‘making love’) to the smoky whispers of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft. All dead space and tensely patient, ‘The xx’ was the Mercury’s most worthy winning favourite in as long as anyone can remember, but the word that perhaps summed it up best of all was the most glaringly obvious – subtle. Unsurprisingly, it’s a word made for the group’s evolution, too.

‘Coexist’ is – surprise, surprise – not a colossal departure from the band’s last, hot-breathed offering. Opener ‘Angels’ – typically understated and brutally honest as it leaves Madley-Croft to do all the work – suggests that the group might have been in suspended animation until now. It’s a track that couldn’t have come from any other band, which is precisely why it’s wholly forgivable of how void of new ideas it is – after all, what really set ‘The xx’ apart was how real it all was, and Romy’s vocals (the type sang with eyes closed) are no less cathartic here than they ever were. The same goes for Oliver Sim’s – he wraps his voice around his soulmate’s on the following ‘Chained’ and much of what’s to come, still delivered in a smooth, gruff burr.

It’s down to Jamie Smith, then, to nose the band forward, and it seems that a couple of years on the club circuit, remixing Gil Scott Heron’s ‘I’m New Here’ and exploring the nuances of dance music have been Smith’s schooling that money can’t buy. And so, while The xx still throb with forlorn, teen heartache, embracing what’s not said as much as what is, on ‘Coexist’, Smith’s beats are peppered with nods to old school 2-step (‘Chained’), tropicalia steel drums (‘Reunion’) and club thumps (‘Sunset’). And subtle though these elements are, their introduction is enough to make the group’s second album a progression from their first.

Considering the unanimous praise garnered by ‘The xx’, it’s something of a bonus. Really, we wanted more of the same, didn’t we? And that’s what we’ve got… nearly.

What’s clear is that The xx have never done anything in a hurry, and ‘Coexist’ is no different on that front. If it sounds a lot like the band’s first album it also sounds like they’ve worked hard to maintain that level of poise.

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