The four 20-year-olds who make up London’s The XX have more in common with Prinzhorn Dance School than Young Marble Giants in their understanding of negative space. Their debut is filled with strange palimpsestual moments where an oily vein of ‘90s lover’s rock runs into the sodden, post-rapture London landscape of Chris Cunningham videos. Like Prinzhorn, the XX play their instruments – two guitars, a bass, and a sampler – more like sound generators than ends-in-themselves, though the romantic fixation of the lyrics doesn’t leave room for the absurd humor implicit in Prinzhorn’s lyrics.
Throughout the album, instruments are subdued as a rule. They start to writhe on the instrumental “Intro,” but when singing’s involved, instruments limit their range of motion to accommodate. Although this is guitar-led music, structurally and aurally, a track like “Shelter” could almost pass as electronic music in the vein of Louderbach’s “Shine.” What Louderbach accomplishes through tweaking their ASDR envelopes, guitarist Romy Madley Croft accomplishes by articulating a certain development of guitar tones across a song. On “Shelter,” guitars at first swell, bell-like at first, then switch to woody downstrokes before breaking free from the rhythm in plaintive phrases. While the guitar playing itself is radically simple, the range of tones the band uses tells as much of the story as the notes themselves.
The first guitar pluck on “Fantasy” doesn’t come in until a minute and a half into the song, but the track – more of an interlude than a standalone song – is a retina-burn afterimage of R ‘n’ B and dubstep. Phantom bass tones take a beat too long to decay, and there’s an almost psychosomatic level of frequency engineering going on at the fringes. The songs here wouldn’t be as striking without destabilizing effects like these, and the burbles, drones, and hisses count as much as the melodies towards making The XX a compelling record, and an unusually assured debut.
As alumni of the Elliott School, what The XX have in common with Four Tet, Burial and Hot Chip is less an aesthetic sensibility than a certain canniness about what making music in 2009 might mean. The band doesn’t waste energy on pursuing any real or imagined community outside themselves – they might be the types to ditch their friends when they get into relationships. There’s a certain hermeneutic air to their debut, and the underlying narrative here is clearly about being so close to someone that any external horizon is lost. It’s a gorgeous and dreamy feeling, and one that’s easy to spend a lot of time in. It’d be missing the point to single out certain tracks for perceived dips in quality – unlike many debuts but like many lovers, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.