The xx’s Debut Album Will Be Young Forever
The xx have gotten older, but in the process they’ve created a timeless record of teenage love.
From the opening seconds of their 2009 debut album, The xx hinted that they would reveal little about themselves. The wordless “Intro” set the stage for a characteristic vagueness from the London trio, yet the song’s harmonized oohs and ahhs conveyed emotions from woe to wonder. Written in the twilight of longtime friends Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith’s teenage years, with the help of temporary fourth member Baria Qureshi, xx is an album that tries hard to imagine what love might feel like, and, as such, demands focused listening: in a bedroom after dusk has fallen; on a nightbus with headphones hugging ears tight.
But xx’s dreaming, like its dreamers, was inexperienced, resulting in tentative sketches rather than confidently fleshed-out songs. The music was simple—just a few skeletal guitar, bass, and drum machine parts—because at the time that was all they knew how to do. By accident, instead of design, they represented a different way forth for popular music: rather than try to shout above the noise of the hyper-compressed, pounding beats dominating charts in the Lady Gaga era, they ducked down beneath it to whisper.
It didn’t take long for the establishment to pick up the band’s signals. Shakira recorded a cover of xx standout “Islands” for her 2010 album, Sale el Sol. Rihanna’s 2011 song “Drunk on Love” sampled “Intro.” Over the past three years, Mac Miller, Jaden Smith, Big Boi, and even Bastille have also tapped their songs for samples. What did these stars see in the moody-eyed Brits’ music? “Some of them have told me they like a certain melancholy that comes with our sound,” Jamie told UK newspaper The Independent in 2012. “And they want to find something that moves away from that overproduced American pop stuff.” Kanye West said it even better: a 2014 New Yorker profile reported that West told The xx they reminded him of Steve Jobs, who “took something as big as the computer and put it in a cell phone.” The xx took outsized youthful ambition and put it inside a sigh.
The xx took outsized youthful ambition and put it inside a sigh.
In early press photos, Romy and Oliver would often lean into one another as if about to divulge a great secret, while Jamie looked into the distance. All three wore black. They were unfailingly polite in interviews, providing just enough color for an outline yet leaving the details frustratingly obscured. Reading back over the press they’ve done over the past few years, a pattern emerges: in a culture obsessed with rapid-fire opinion and reaction-as-content, The xx have often resisted sharing theirs.
“We bare everything in the music,” Romy told Pitchfork in 2012. “And that’s why we need to let it speak for itself rather than putting ourselves out there.” That same year, in an interview with The Guardian, Oliver protested against the press’ insistence that the group’s members reveal more about themselves: “I just don’t want to tell everyone everything. If you took anyone off the street and asked them to share as much as we get asked to share, they’d say no. I don’t think that’s abnormal.” In 2010, Jamie summed up their silence for Dazed: “I just feel… like I don’t have anything to say."
The trio’s reluctance to talk wasn’t a marketing ploy, but the result of a real, paralyzing shyness. When they first started playing live, the band rarely looked up from their instruments, which sometimes made it difficult for audiences to engage. Six years later, they’re more confident onstage, swaggering through choreographed moves in front of giant, starry Xs. But offstage remains a different story. As their peers catalog every detail of their lives online, The xx produce little in the way of content. They rarely turn up in news feeds and almost never in gossip columns.
Just because they’re quiet, though, doesn’t mean they don’t speak up when it’s needed. In 2010, the band’s label Young Turks tweeted that they disapproved of UK Conservative prime minister David Cameron’s use of their music at a political conference. In 2013, after a Croatian anti-gay-marriage group stole their music for an ad, the band issued a press release saying they “unconditionally support the equal right to marriage regardless of sexuality.” More recently, they posted an Instagram image celebrating America’s landmark ruling on marriage equality.
Musically, they’ve grown more outspoken, too. Their second album, 2012’s Coexist, is louder, both literally and lyrically, and more geared towards the communal transports of the dancefloor, thanks to the influence of Jamie’s budding career as a DJ and producer. He’s always been the quietest of the three, so it’s of note that his debut solo album as Jamie xx—In Colour, with its runaway summer hit “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”—is sonically bigger than anything The xx has put out to date. Singing on the record’s “Loud Places,” it’s Romy who provides the biggest clue as to why: I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with/ Who will take me home.
Love, and looking for it, has always propelled The xx, and while the three friends initially charmed the world with their naivety in that regard, they’re a lot older and wiser now. Choosing when to speak out and when to remain silent isn’t just something that artists have to learn how to navigate in the internet age; it’s something that we learn as we grow up. In an interview with The FADER this spring, Jamie hinted that the band’s upcoming third album will bring to life that step into adulthood. “The first album is sort of discovering ourselves,” he said. “The second album is like a comedown from that. The third album is knowing ourselves.”
Below, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft look back at writing The xx’s debut single, “Crystalised,” alongside lyrics that they wrote out by hand.
OLIVER SIM: “Crystalised” was written when we were 17. We were already gigging but only had five original songs to our name.
ROMY MADLEY-CROFT: Oliver sent me the first half of the first verse, and then I wrote the second half. It was like sort of like playing tag.
SIM: I’d heard from my mum about a process where people have their ashes compressed into crystals. As macabre as it is, I liked the idea of forcefully making something take shape into something more beautiful. The concept of the song was built off that.
MADLEY-CROFT: Lyrically, the focus came from Oliver. He just came to me with that and I was just like, “Oh, wow.”
SIM: We wrote our lyrics separately and sent them to one another over email. We were so new to songwriting, I don’t think either of us had the courage to share and write face to face. We eventually came together and built the bare skeleton of the song in Romy’s dad’s front room.
MADLEY-CROFT: I remember very clearly saying to Jamie we’d like a rumbling drum sound. That’s quite a vague thing, but he interpreted it and came up with that rolling, rhythmic part.
SIM: The opening sound of the song is me doing my best choir boy impression, which Jamie pitched up on his MPC.
MADLEY-CROFT: It’s two very different stories happening in the song. I still don’t know what that song means to Oliver, and he probably still doesn’t know what it means to me—that’s what I love, really.
I’m always trying to bring in things like nature and stars and the weather and connect them to a notion. Sometimes you just have to let go and say, “That’s what I really love writing about.” Things making sense is something I worry more about now, more that I did then. Maybe I need to stop worrying so much.
SIM: The first place we ever played this song was in front of 15 people at a venue called The Troubadour in London.
MADLEY-CROFT: I really love this song still. The way we play it now is kind of spacious, and it leads with synths from Jamie which sort of teases the audience, and then they sing the ay-ay-ayyy bit. Quite a lot of the songs from the first album have taken on very new meaning to me because of the way the audience responds.