How the group’s auspicious debut changed the direction of pop music for the next decade
In 2007, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a hotly debated New Yorker piece called “A Paler Shade of White” in which he castigated the Decemberists, Arcade Fire, and Wilco for removing the last tatters of James Brown’s influence from rock ‘n’ roll.
I interviewed the Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison not long after, who thought it was absurd and sang a few bars of Arcade Fire’s gospel-derived “Crown of Love” right there in the café to demonstrate. The occasion was his own then-new solo album, All Y’All, which shared two crucial qualities with Rilo Kiley’s contemporaneous Under the Blacklight: Both albums found indie-rockers boldly (and excellently) incorporating the then-forbidden sounds of R&B, particularly those of their ‘80s upbringing. And both albums were exiled by the indie-rock cognoscenti, which wasn’t very interested in James Brown in 2007.
It was, however, interested in Beyoncé, whom the anonymous loner-legend Burial sampled on his masterpiece Untrue that year, along with Christina Aguilera and Kim Kardashian sex-tape costar Ray J. So maybe the aesthetes who dug it did fall slightly for the irony of sampling these VH-1 touchstones in their dour dubstep-is-the-new-trip-hop jams. But by 2009, there was zero irony in the next big indie thing to flirt with R&B. The xx were almost painfully sincere, so when these shy goth kids barely in their 20s covered Aaliyah and Womack & Womack, no one doubted the authenticity of their very out-front attraction to the same music that Frere-Jones claimed Pavement fans dismissed.
It’s rare to be in a position where it feels safe to say that an album sounds like nothing that came before, but xx is that album. Romy Madley Croft’s instantly recognizable single-note guitar playing on instant classics like “Intro” and “Crystalised” recalls the Edge’s adage that “notes are expensive” and therefore splits the difference between his reverberating minimalism and Carrie Brownstein’s spindly, unshowy leads. In fact, just think Young Marble Giants’ mastery of palm-muting blown up to U2 size but with a palpable R&B influence and you’re kind of there. The xx crammed reference points into sentences that never combined them before. It’s hard to say which makes itself more scarce, Oliver Sim’s bass or his voice, which is a notch drier than Romy’s. And the vertebrae of the mix is Jamie Smith, whose carefully percussive backdrops could rarely be considered a “beat” in 2009 but that would change radically in time. Their coolest trick, though, was to use reverb to make them sound closer to your ear, not further away; xx has a late-night stillness rarely heard outside of Willie Nelson recordings.
The songs, which are both uniform and uniformly great, admittedly kind of blur together. Fuck if I remember which calm-duet-with-elliptical-riff is “Shelter” and which one’s “Infinity” without looking. (In this house, “Night Time” is “the one with the danceable bridge.”) But they’re far more distinct than, say, Galaxie 500’s. The tracks you don’t remember, like the tensely drumless “Fantasy,” are just as strong as the ones that conquered Grey’s Anatomy, like “Islands.”
Right, the ubiquity. This wasn’t just an album whose songs were heard in commercials for a year. The xx was probably the most influential alternative-rock album ever in the worlds of R&B and urban pop. Rihanna would go onto sample “Intro” on “Drunk on Love” from her first great album, 2011’s Talk That Talk, mere days after Drake released his sophomore outing Take Care, which had a sizable hit in the title track (also featuring Riri), which was completely built around a sample from one of Smith’s Gil Scott-Heron remixes that Croft lent one of her signature gorgeous guitar lines to. (That whole album, Jamie xx and Scott-Heron’s We’re New Here, is, for my money, the best album ever to come from the xx universe.)
The xx won the Mercury Music Prize in 2009, and for once a winner’s influence continued to be felt for longer than a couple years. Indie-rock itself turned into an experimental playground for broken soul music, introducing names like How to Dress Well, Autre Ne Veut, and Porches. The term “PBR&B” began popping up in thinkpieces. And the slow, brooding, lightly foreboding tone of xx made its way further into the mainstream as Drake, Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean, and the Weeknd became the new standard bearers of pop, all grayscale and downbeat and increasingly ghostly presences on the charts and radio, though admittedly none came even closer to the gender parity of Sim and Croft’s duets.
The ambiguity of the two singers’ relationship to each other in these songs we now know to be romantically nonexistent, as both are openly gay, and their intertwined vocals has been said to be “singing past each other,” while intersecting on commonalities by happenstance every which way. And it’s true, lovelorn hooks like “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave,” “I can’t give it up for someone else’s touch,” and “You say you think we are the best thing” are sentiments as universal as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” The sparse songcraft lends itself to all different settings for both listening and building onto artistically; it would’ve seemed ridiculous in 2009 to say these wallflowers have a future in dance music.
But over the course of the only two albums they’ve released since —2012’s even more minimal and terribly underrated Coexist, and 2017’s blatantly, pleasurably EDM-influenced I See You — they’ve continued to turn lone, isolated sonics into shared experiences. That’s what music’s for, isn’t it?