As a wise woman once observed, you know you’ve found somebody really special “when you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share a silence.”
For the British trio the xx, silence—or at least the closest thing to silence as exists in pop music that can fill large venues and win prestigious awards—is golden. On the gorgeous and ghostly Coexist, the band’s recently released second album, voices whisper and coo from around corners, solitary guitars reflect light then disappear like icicles melting in the sun, and beats pitter-patter furtively like a cat running down the stairs. When something unexpected arrives, like the steel drums that ring out in “Reunion,” it almost feels like an air horn. It’s music as haiku instead of sonnet; Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald, with meaning and emotion lurking beneath the surface. It seems eager to get out of the way of itself.
That ethos carries over into the band’s public persona. They’re polite but exceedingly soft-spoken, shy, guarded. Onstage they tend to hide in the shadows, behind the smoke and say precious little. Outside the protective bubbles of their London recording space or their tour bus, the threesome appear exceedingly ill at ease.
But they have one another, a bond that’s virtually familial—singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft and singer-bassist Oliver Sim have been friends since they were three; the pair have been tight with beatsmith Jamie Smith since they were 11. (They’re all 23 now.)
“I don’t take for granted what an amazing relationship we have,” Sim says from a hotel room in Minneapolis. “It’s truly special. We’re all on the same page, and it helps us come to grips with everything and keep our sanity.”
Exhausted after a 15-hour drive from Colorado, Sim is friendly if reserved. By his own admission, he’s still the most talkative member of the band. “I think we’ve gotten a bit better at some things,” he chuckles quietly, referring not only to the band’s dealings with journalists and fans but also to their stage presence—they’re making an effort to emerge from the shadows. “We enjoy it more now, so that all feels natural,” he insists. “In the beginning, we really had to force ourselves to come onstage, even to be playing in a pub in front of two guys was a terrifying, paralyzing experience. I think we’ve come a long way.”
Their growing confidence is perhaps most evident in Coexist, which is much more sparse than the band’s self-titled 2009 debut. It takes a lot to present songs with so few moving parts and believe they can hold the listener’s attention. “The only time we start to feel out of sorts is if there’s too much in there,” says Sim. “I really like the subtleties in music, and I wanna give them the room to be noticed.”
“We never finish a song and then add anything,” he continues. “It’s always a case of stripping away all the unneeded, fatty bits, with no regrets.”
Lyrically, it has been a more difficult balancing act. On one hand, Sim says, the words are purposely ambiguous—”We’re quite nonspecific in our songs, no ‘he’s’ or ‘she’s,’ no tying it to certain places or times”—to maintain some privacy and to make the songs more universal. Still, he admits, both his and Madley Croft’s explorations of love and sorrow are far more personal than on the first outing.
“I started writing when we were 15, and I was super excited about the idea of a relationship, but I had never been in one,” Sim says. “So those songs were built on expectations and ideas and looking at other people’s relationships. But on this record, I’m writing about my own stuff that I’ve gone through, and I was pretty terrified to put all of that out there. But I think we did a good job of saying what we wanted to and not worrying about the fallout.”
Indeed, Coexist‘s emotional pull feels more acute and heartbreaking than its predecessor, even if the details remain a mystery. Sim will only reveal what’s behind the final track, “Our Song.” It’s about the trio itself and the bond they share, Sim and Madley Croft’s voices curling protectively around each other: “You know I know you’re hurt/I want to mend your heart/And there’s no one else/Who knows me/Like you do/What I’ve done/You’ve done, too/The walls I/Hide behind/You walk through/You just walk through.”
The xx play the Paradise Theater October 26 and 27.