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XX Marks the SpotSpot
on March 5, 2010
I fell for this album at first listen.
I didn't even have to listen all the way through; I was hooked by the first spare atmospheric guitar pluckings on the unfortunately-titled "Intro." (I only complain because it seems like a dismissive title; the song is so much more than a mere lead-in to other things.) Granted, I was predisposed to like it; I'd been seduced from afar by the rave reviews, the sexy group name and album title--is anything sexier than an X? Yes, four Xs--and the cool mystique. But there's a lot of well-reviewed stuff that sounds good in the dim light of a first encounter but doesn't hold up to the morning's harsh judgment, and the harsher judgment of succeeding days.
This, on the other hand, turned out to be one of those albums that gets better and better as I get to know it; I listen to such albums and end up almost amazed that they didn't already exist somehow; there is something primal and right about them, something sonically equivalent to a tetris piece that materialized from nowhere and fell exactly into a deep hole inside me that I somehow hadn't noticed before.
Granted, this album works partly by evoking other great albums that have come before, all the masterpieces of shoegaze and dubstep and trip-hop; in some ways it succeeds more as culmination and synthesis than as departure. Still, it succeeds at both; it differentiates itself because it manages to be warm and cool at the same time, without being lukewarm. The music is spare and icy, a nighttime cityscape viewed through a high-rise window; the heat comes from the vocals, a male and female voice talking to each other at pillow distance or closer; they only want enough backdrop to set the mood, and no more, because they're doing their damndest to never leave the bedroom--or, better yet, the bed.
But--importantly--it isn't the sound of love, exactly. It is many things, but it is not quite that; it is desire and codependency and lust, and the fear of how much colder it will all feel when one or the other leaves. The words aren't just the lies one hears on the radio or whispered in one's ear; they're also the real things one hears in one's head and sees written across a lover's face while their lips are busy saying other things: "Sometimes I still need you" and "I think I'm losing where I end and you begin" and "I'm setting us into stone piece by piece before I'm alone" and so on, and so forth. ("I'm sure you heard it before," they sing on "Heart Skipped a Beat," and if you're anything like me, you have heard it before, or thought it, or said it, or lived it--or all of the above. And you soundtracked it to Portishead, or Burial, or Massive Attack, or My Bloody Valentine, or Slowdive--but not this, because, of course, it didn't exist yet.)
And yet it does deserve to exist, and so much more--to be a soundtrack of its own, to be noticed and obsessed over in its own right, for its own considerable strengths. The XX are bold enough to dispense with most of the drumming and thereby create something new and unique; they are bold enough, too, to keep in both the warm breath of smoky soul and whispered lies, and the cold backdrop outside--the distant city, and the realities one can't hold at bay forever.
Still, again, this is one of those albums that leaves you crazy when you try to leave it cold. Like all lovers, it reminds you of others, and like all the best, it has its flaws, and it somehow manages to be perfect and unique in spite of them, and maybe even because of them. If you're anything like me, you might come up with reasons not to like it, or to hold it at arm's length. (I told myself that the male vocals were too mumbly, and the female ones too breathy, and that the songs were too varied in quality, because they range from "Perfect" to "Really Great.") Eventually, though, you'll find yourself wondering, "When am I going to spend time with xx again?" and realizing you just got together yesterday, and thinking you still need another fix anyway. And--and this is the truest test--you will be willing to forsake time with your other loves (Sorry, Joanna Newsom!) to make it happen. Actions speak louder than words, and the play count tells me more about my feelings for this album than anything I can set down here.