The xx arrived in 2009, seemingly out of nowhere, with their aesthetic fully formed: hushed, gracefully restrained, still as a photograph and glinting like a lover's eyes in darkness. Their self-titled debut album was too emotive to be called "minimalist," but it was nevertheless uncommonly tidy, especially given the bruised heart beating at its core. Uncommonly intimate, too: The way Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whispered and purred only served to draw us closer in, until we could practically feel their breath tickling our ears. (No matter that they were simply trying not to wake their parents when they recorded at their computers, late at night.) In mood and sonics, their debut resembled nothing else at the time, which helped the album score the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Prize. But as singular as their sound was, it was also profoundly, almost uncannily familiar -- they sounded like someone we'd known all our lives. Perhaps that's because that was true for The xx themselves: Croft and Sim have been friends since they were three years old and say they can't remember a time without each other; Jamie Smith (Jamie xx), a comparative latecomer, met the two when all three were just 11.
Listening to The xx can feel like eavesdropping. For all the naked clarity of their lyrics, you have the sense you're spying on other people's lives without their knowledge or consent. Wee-hour couplets like the chorus of "Shelter" -- "Maybe I had said/ Something that was wrong/ Can I make it better/ With the lights turned on" -- come to feel like entries in someone else's diary, which only enhances the thrill of listening in.
Another part of the record's uncanny familiarity is less personal, of course. It has to do with how expertly the band managed to pull from such a wide range of influences and distill those borrowings into something unique, somehow both deeply rooted but also sui generis. Though Croft and Sims are not a romantic couple, their twined vocals recalled those of bands fronted by lovers, like Yo La Tengo and Low.
Low's meditative, bass-heavy arrangements also informed The xx's spacious, hesitant songs, which often sound like a contemporary take on slowcore. They combine the twang of American country at its loneliest with the hush of British folk; the ghost of Elvis Presley's Sun sessions hangs over them in a halo of close reverb. And the pointillist nature of the melodies, dripping like water, emphasizes the aching spaces between the notes and echoes the drifting ambient music of Aphex Twin and Seefeel. While we've been sneaking glances at their journals, The xx have been stealing hooks and making them their own.
The xx's new album, Coexist, finds the band inhabiting states of mind and mood similar to those that characterized their debut album, making this the perfect time to explore the origins of their carefully constructed sound world. Read up on those albums below, and delve into a two-and-a-half-hour heartbreakathon with our Source Material playlist above.