Words by Ken Scrudato
It’s pithy that The xx’s name employs the same sort of intentional poetic colorlessness as did the name choice of The Smiths. Indeed, this London foursome similarly forward a particular brand of graveyard and teatime poetry laced with turbulent, bemused sexuality. Their rather astonishing debut is one of those rarest of birds: a record that is both enthrallingly sexy and almost unfailingly, well, grey.
Intrigued to peel back a couple of layers of the already advancing mystique of The xx, we appropriately catch up with singer-guitarist Oliver Sim in Berlin–a city that has itself long balanced a devotion to sexual liberty with a near incessant state of recovery from unimaginable tragedy. Sim is without guile, and, as somewhat expected, affably impenetrable.
He reveals, “We’re not particularly loud, in your face people.” We’d guessed that, yes.
“But I don’t think we’re depressives,” he’s quick to defend. “We don’t just slip around frowning all the time. I think the general mood of our music is a cross-section of some of our favorite songs.”
Much has been made of The xx’s ability to incorporate the slinkier virtues of R&B into their songs’ decaying-factory atmospherics. Make no mistake, nothing they do would be easily confused with Beyonce or Usher. Instead, they evince an overarching languid sensuality, perhaps akin to the feelings of a soldier (an English soldier, of course) making love to his girl one last night before going off to war.
The British press have been enthusiastically labeling them the future of music. But truth be told, they lightly tread a couple of well-worn paths (not a criticism). “Intro”, with it’s minimalist, distantly echoing guitar riff, could easily be introducing an Interpol record. And songs like “Crystalized” and “Heart Skipped A Beat” don’t exactly hide affection for early New Order, with their mix of sanguinely libidinous beats and mournful, trebly bass riffs.
But hoping to also be enlightened as to perhaps a glorious catalog of obscure Northern soul gems, we press Mr. Sim to open up about his band’s actual influences. We get nothing of the sort.
“Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Ex Factor’ is one of the most heartbreaking songs lyrically,” Sim offers. “And another good one, which we covered, Womack and Womack’s ‘Teardrops’—I love the contradiction, in that it’s an upbeat dance song that sounds great in a club, but it’s got really sad lyrics.”
Mind you, their debut bears little resemblance to the glossily produced chart-fare he has just ticked off. Rather, Jamie Smith’s spare production, all desolate, chilly and yet also somehow piercingly erotic, focuses the attention on what genuinely does set them apart: the doomily romantic, soul-inflected vocal duets of Sim and Romy Madley-Croft.
But if the fans are the truest measure (they usually are), their emotional frankness seems to be making its mark on a new generation of wounded souls. Like those aforementioned Smiths, The xx have already begun to amass their own little, shall we say, Army of Outsiders.
“A lot of people come up asking me to explain my lyrics,” Sim divulges, “but I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone. Some of my favorite songs I’ve sort of connected to my own experiences. And if the person that wrote the lyrics explained them and it didn’t match what I thought them to be, I would think it would be quite heartbreaking.”
Not that The xx don’t want to break your heart, mind you. They’re just hoping to have a little time with you on the dancefloor before they do.
WE SAY PARTY, WE SAY DIE
The history of artistic expression is littered with humanity’s desperate attempts to convey both the mysteries of sensuality and the depths of our despairing. A precious few, Caravaggio, Goya, Modigliani, were masters of both.
Here, we look at some of the musical precursors to The xx, those that have found their way to our pain by feeding our appetite for pleasure—or, quite possibly, the other way around.
A Certain Ratio – Described by the Tony Wilson character in 24 Hour Party People as “Joy Division, but better dressed.” Over wicked punk-funk dance grooves they spat disdainful tales of post-industrial social decay, featuring such lyrical niceties as, “I flayed your flesh with my thoughts.” Paradigm Moment: In “Shack Up” Jeremy Kerr sneers “We can talk about the wedding ceremony / And I know it’s just a phony.”
Prefab Sprout – Made shimmering, often uplifting and lascivious pop songs, with lyrics positing human relationships as a frozen, hope-robbed wasteland. Coldplay copped their aesthetic, replacing the sex with sulking. Paradigm moment: In “Desire As” Paddy McAloon icily conveys to a lover, “I’ve got six things on my mind / You’re no longer one of them.” Ouch.
Portishead – Took the sexually charged Bristol dub-club beats model and piled on Beth Gibbons devastatingly anguished meditations on loneliness and isolation. Paradigm moment: In “Roads” Gibbons abjectly intones, “We’ve got a war to fight…I’ve got nobody on my side.”
Suede – On a good night, Brett Anderson could out-strut even Jagger. But behind all the trash glamour were wasted tales of tenement alienation and smack addiction. Paradigm moment: In “The Wild Ones”, Anderson begs with Byronic poetic desperation, “But oh if you stay, I’ll chase the rainblown fields away.” Promises, promises…
Billie Holiday – It hardly needs to be explained. She was the sexiest singer of her time by far, but always…there was the sadness. Paradigm moment: In “Billie’s Blues” Lady Day concedes, “I ain’t good looking / And my hair ain’t curled.” Crushing.
The Next Generation…
Hurts – Hedi Slimane-endorsed Manchester duo mate sleek Italo-disco with forbidding atmospherics and gorgeously somber orchestrations. Arthur Baker’s remix of their sardonically titled “Wonderful Life” is sure to be electrifying dancefloors from Shoreditch to Shanghai.
Factory Floor – East London apocalypse merchants surround infectious electro pop beats with eerie, spectral wailing and the delightful hum of mechanized oblivion. Single “Lying” drags “death disco” mercilessly into the 21st Century.