Ten Years Later, The xx’s Self-Titled Debut Remains Indefinable
xx is as melancholic as ever a decade after the London trio introduced themselves to the world.
Teenagers are able to birth enormous dreams, kill them, and mourn them within minutes. “I’m burning to impress / it’s deep in the middle of me,” sings The xx’s Oliver Sim, then nineteen, on the abyssal “Fantasy.” His wistful words are filled with youthful longing and hope. But his vocals are also spiraling in purgatory, wavering like holograms. “Fantasy” is about wanting to be something different for someone, and yearning for something that doesn’t exist—two of the thematic veins on The xx’s eponymous debut album. Ten years after xx’s release, the songs are every bit as haunting and irresistibly romantic as they once were.
Together, clad all in black, Sim, Romy Madley Croft, and Jamie Smith crafted an album that didn’t just narrate intimacy—it also created an intimate connection with its listeners. Smith’s production captures the stillness of nighttime (he was in the studio between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.). Droning hums fade into the background like cigarette smoke; fuzzy static bustles in the background on various tracks, as though we’ve entered into a place where nocturnal beings thrive. “Can I confess these things to you?” Madley Croft sings on “Night Time.”
Most of xx plays out like a heart-swelling soliloquy; Madley Croft and Sim use their lyrics to confide in whomever is on the other side of the headphones, but they don’t necessarily address the objects of their affection. It’s like they are passing notes in the dark, waiting ’til everyone goes to bed.
Even without the woozy spouts of passion, their music bleeds intensity. The album’s instrumental “Intro” uses ominous synths and a wavy guitar melody to paint in broad strokes of faltering desire. At the beginning, guitar plucks repeat themselves before moving on to the next note, as if questioning where they’re going to land. The intro encapsulates the album’s general introspection, the fear of fully losing yourself in someone, of being fearless in love. And, boy do those notes relinquish themselves from fear during the song’s climax—it’s a shower of relief, where a melody fills in the negative space the first thirty seconds were staggering to find.
It’s like they are passing notes in the dark, waiting ’til everyone goes to bed.
Whatever closeness The xx portray doesn’t reside in actual details; xx seizes upon an ambiguous feeling more than anything else. It’s a mere snapshot of a scene, without setting or characters. The band reveals their insecurities, but nothing beyond that; they give us everything and nothing over the course of eleven tracks, allowing a blend of intimacy and universality. They even subtracted gender-specific pronouns. “We never say ‘him’ or ‘her.’ It’s always just ‘you,’” Madley Croft explained to Dazed in a 2010 interview.
Their debut was all about figuring themselves out, whilst simultaneously refusing to conform to pop music’s heteronormative language. Madley Croft and Sim are childhood friends who were duetting about romantic themes with different subjects in mind. They were singing with each other, but not to each other. Two queer BFFs waxing poetic about young love.
Many initial reviews declared their debut an album about moody teens getting laid. “I don’t think we were sitting down and overtly being like, ‘This song is about my sex life,'” Croft explained to The Guardian. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the collaborative cohesiveness, Croft and Sim exchanged lyrics, never writing them with the other person in the room or telling their partner whom they were writing about.
xx lives on as a somewhat indefinable, beautiful, queer piece of art contending painfully with the notion of romance. The lead single “Crystalised” was inspired by a post-mortem process wherein one’s ashes are transformed 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,” Sim told The Fader. On xx, there’s a compulsion to force permanency onto something fleeting. “Heart skipped a beat / but when I caught it you were out of reach,” goes one of the band’s defining singles. But Madley Croft won’t miss it the next time: “I’m setting us in stone,” she insists on “Basic Space.” “It’s a pool of boiling wax, I’m getting in / Let it set, got to seal this in,” Sim continues.
Ten years ago, three young Londoners attempted to pin down the ghost of desire, to avoid being haunted by heartache. Although they didn’t avoid it, they made something which feels timeless, forever cast in striking melancholia. FL