808s & Heartbreak
By Michael Martin
Most pop stars under the age of 21 have some growing up to do. That wasn’t the case for the xx, a trio of young Brits who emerged with a perfectly formed sound on their brooding, excellent 2009 debut, xx. The winner of the U.K.’s Mercury Prize a year later, the album suggested that the group could well afford to remain in a state of artistic stasis. But after two years touring the world, the young miserablists are growing up, at least in some ways.
“We’ve all just done that sort of transition into adults,” says singer-guitartist Romy Madley Croft, who recently turned 23. “Lost love, gained love—things like that. I’ve had a few more heartbreaks for sure.”
It’s a good thing that Croft, in her words, “loves heartbreak.” She’s a master at expressing it. As she trades off vocals with guitarist Oliver Sim, Croft’s phrasing is hypnotically cool but still seasoned and soulful, like Adele dialed down from 11 to 1.
A transfixing, shockingly mature album that swung from drone rock to minimalist electro, xx belied the ages of the musicians who produced it: Croft, Sim, and beatmaker Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie xx) ranged from 16 to 18 when they recorded the album.
This polished adolescent angst continues on the xx’s second full-length, Coexist, which was partly inspired by the club music they surrounded themselves with after they returned from touring and settled into London to party with friends.
“Something I realized from going out is that when you listen to quite a lot of soulful house, you notice the lyrics are not always positive,” says Croft. “I love the idea that you can be in a club dancing and having a great time, but if you listen to the lyrics, they can be quite heartbreaking. That’s something that we’ve definitely explored -- happier music with sadder lyrics.”
Croft has also decided to come out, which to her is a distinction without a difference. “It’s not something I really talk about,” she says, a bit haltingly.” I mean, I am. But if I was singing about a guy, I would probably be singing a similar kind of love song, really. I feel like we never explain our songs directly -- what they’re about or who they’re about. But I never want to be so secretive that it’s like denying it. It’s the same as everything about us: We don’t want to make a big deal out of everything. We’re not shouty.”
Still, when the xx played massive U.K. music festivals, like Glastonbury, they were greeted by a noticeably intense response from fans; the stark, low-key vibe of their sets didn’t stop audiences from clapping along. “It’s interesting seeing the almost bizarre range of people at our gigs,” says Croft. “You’ve got somebody in their twenties, and then their brother and then their dad. And then, you know, like some sort of estranged auntie. Everyone’s there -- gay, straight -- having a good time. In Middle America, we saw all these jock guys in the audience, and we think that’s great. I was pleasantly surprised we were reaching people in that way.”
That’s in part because the band’s output has both commercial appeal (“We’ve been used in adverts for AT&T,” says Croft with a laugh, “and I didn’t know what that was.”) and a smoky, cinematic, art-house quality to it. Croft, whose favorite album growing up was Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, says they would love to score a film.
At this point, the xx have the cachet -- and, it seems, the grown-up sense of self-awareness -- to allow them to do whatever they want. “We just write love songs,” says Croft. “What’s interesting about the new album is that I’ve spoken to a lot of different people and heard about a lot of different relationships. People’s situations are complex and different, but the emotions are quite similar. I quite liked realizing that.”
Watch the video for "Chained" below.