Apologies for not coming up with the annual skree of indignation when the Mercury shortlist was announced a couple of weeks ago. To be honest, I couldn’t be bothered to get worked up about it this year, not least because it would’ve been quite a struggle to come up with a dozen British albums I could genuinely enthuse about that have come out in the last 12 months.
I did, though, have a momentary flash of annoyance about the absence of The xx’s album, until I realised that it wasn’t out ‘til mid-August and consequently didn’t qualify for the prize this year. “xx” is the debut album by The xx, whose lower-case affectation actually suits their music rather well.
I’ve read quite a lot about this record which fixates on the band’s origins at the Elliot School in Putney, which tends to bracket them with that school’s other notable alumni, Four Tet/Fridge, Hot Chip and Burial, and ignores the fact that The xx are actually a comparatively orthodox, if unusually subtle, indie-rock band. Plenty of press has also made a deal about their R&B influences, which are palpable, but hardly overstated: anyone who comes to “xx” expecting something comparable to the tooled, unearthly soundscapes that Timbaland created for Aaliyah may be disappointed, or at least a little confounded.
You can, at a push, see a bunch of these insidious little songs as more organic reconfigurations of that sound. But maybe a better comparison, if just as stretched an idea, might be Mazzy Star covering Portishead. These are 11 songs that are pleasingly hard to separate, that sustain an arid, skeletal, low-lit atmosphere, with a prevailingly creepy vibe that’s barely undermined by it being so evidently contrived.
“Intro” sets the tone, an instrumental of spare twangs, mildly looming keyboard ambience and crackling beats. When vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim turn up on “VCR”, the modus operandi becomes totally clear; spacious minimalism overlaid with affected boy/girl vocals that manage to be simultaneously detached and doleful.
Maybe I’m making it sound a bit hipster-gimmicky, but “xx” is much better than that, not just because the atmosphere is so compelling, but thanks to the potency of many of these songs. For all their apparent stripped similarity to each other, the likes of “Crystallised”, “Islands” and especially “Shelter” have been lodged stubbornly in my brain for a good few weeks now. Let’s hope they’re still there with a few other people this time next year.