The xx and Grizzly Bear

The xx exist in a time and space of their own making. In 2009 the south London trio’s debut album ‘xx’, quietly made at night over the course of two years, bled steadily into the public consciousness to become shorthand for newly refined ideas of teenage desire and anxiety. Articulated with a maturity beyond their years, its hallmarks were restraint and ambiguity. In the age of the over-share, ‘xx’ was pop with its privacy settings on max.

Three years on, Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith are back with a new album, ‘Coexist’, and a new perspective. Where ‘xx’ lent in close to whisper in your ear, ‘Coexist’ gazes warmly in your eyes. Much has happened to lead to this point: most pertinently, they’ve grown up.

Following the release of ‘xx’, the trio spent the lion’s share of 2010 far from home, taking their gentle shaping of a new London sound to ears and hearts in America, Japan, Australia and mainland Europe. Critical acclaim was matched by commercial success around the world, before The xx won the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. With all the successes and new experiences of that intense year and a half, a period away from the stage and studio was inevitable. In late October 2010 The xx returned from tour for some time apart, and normality.

“All of our friends had been to university and left home,” says Romy. “We really wanted to do that natural thing that you do when you go to uni or grow up.” All three moved out of their family homes within two weeks of being back. They made up for lost time with friends, hung out and embraced a summer of festivals and shows that Jamie was booked to DJ. “We were his groupies,” laughs Romy.

Previously cast as the quietest of the three, Jamie became the public face of The xx in 2011. In-between DJ gigs, he focused on growing his production skills, developing a distinct sound and presence. His remix of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep, re-imagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s final album on ‘We’re New Here’ with its defining single I’ll Take Care Of U, and his debut solo single Far Nearer set him apart as a highly regarded producer in his own right. That position was cemented when Drake asked Jamie to produce the title track of his album ‘Take Care’, inspired by I’ll Take Care Of U.

Behind the scenes, there was evolution too. Romy and Oliver’s writing process on ‘xx’ had been to exchange lyrics over the internet and only sing what they each had written. Having begun to write again quite soon after returning from tour – “Much sooner than I expected,” says Romy – they discovered that their initial reticence to bare so much of themselves in person had faded.

“The newest thing that we’ve done on this record is that me and Romy wrote in a room together,” explains Oliver. “We went into a room with nothing and talked through early ideas together, which was fun but bizarre because we’ve never done that before. I also sang one of Romy’s lyrics for the first time, which felt really nice.”

Where dreams and expectation had largely coloured Oliver’s lyrics on ‘xx’, on ‘Coexist’ he draws on his own experiences: “Which I’m surprised I’ve done because I knew people were going to hear them; I’m surprised I was able to put it out there confidently.” Conversely, Romy wrote quite openly from experience on their debut: “It felt very much like a direct diary – although obviously we’ve always written quite cryptically. I think my lyrics have become more from observation and expectation, which is a complete swap.”

That realignment extends to Jamie’s role. When he originally joined the band they’d been writing and gigging for a year. This time around it was the three of them working together from the start. Following a short spell in a Dalston practice room, Jamie found a space in Angel that would become their studio. Essentially a couple of rooms in an ordinary office block, they turned the once mundane space into a nocturnal hub of creativity among the nine-to-five surroundings, hanging black velvet on the walls as soundproofing and fitting it out with a set-up that now included piano, drums and steel pan. Back together again, separate from both their label in west London and east London’s music scene, Romy, Oliver and Jamie wrote ‘Coexist’.

“We just ended up playing new stuff to each other to try and write which was a fun way to do it,” explains Jamie. It wasn’t always plain sailing: “The idea I had at the beginning when we started wasn’t the right idea because I’d been in a place where I was making music for Drake and other people, and myself, and I’d kind of forgotten about working with these two, which is very different because we’re so close.” Jamie continues: “Learning to work together as grownups was the biggest thing – it’s the thing that influenced the album the most. We just needed to find a balance.”

Understanding that balance became the heart and soul of ‘Coexist’. “Jamie has done his solo stuff and Oliver and I have done separate things but The xx is only when we’re together. That’s when it’s really us,” explains Romy. “I was reading up on oil on water – when you see a puddle on the floor and it’s a rainbow. Oil and water don’t mix, they agree to peacefully coexist. I really liked that – these two simple things, oil and water, that together make something beautiful.”

“To coexist doesn’t paint the rosiest picture but I think it represents the realness,” continues Romy. “Learning to live together, learning to work together again, learning to live with the person you’re with, or your ex. It’s all connected.” Through that learning process, the anxious night time of ‘xx’ has made way for sunrise on ‘Coexist’.

While the fingerprints of R&B remain, ‘Coexist’s dawn realisations flicker into life under house music’s gaze, most resonant on Reunion, Sunset and Swept Away. It also echoes in Romy’s guitar riffs and Oliver’s bass lines, which circle and build like loops. “That’s something I love about dance music, how something insignificant can somehow become profound after the fifth repetition,” says Oliver.

Above all, though, ‘Coexist’ is an album of confident adult reflection. Angels, sung by Romy, is a perfectly distilled love song. Its counter is Fiction led by Oliver, a bittersweet ballad that’s strength lies in naming its fear. What has changed for The xx? Nothing, and everything. Older and wiser, surer yet still so tender, ‘Coexist’ finds itself on the other side of heartbreak, when the light returns.

Last year, IBM released a report about the way marketing officials at major corporations are using the Internet. Though the gist of the study concluded that these high-paid administrators weren’t using it very well, the October release actually hinged on a much more intriguing and intimidating fact: “Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data—so much that 90 percent of the world’s data today has been created in the last two years alone.”

We simply can’t keep up. Whether it’s the deluge of MP3s that flood the Internet daily, the information that companies collect about the purchases we make, or the photos of family pets and weekend meals our friends load onto social networks, the worldwide swell of data is best managed by supercomputers and servers, not the people who, in essence, manufacture and depend upon it. It’s hard to resist the temptation of this ever-accelerating cycle—to create and release quickly, so that the world’s bytes don’t leave you behind.

But Shields, the fourth and most fluid album by Grizzly Bear to date, slyly defies that trend. True, the quartet of Chris Bear, Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor have never made a quick follow-up; it took them three years to get from Horn of Plenty to Yellow House, three more to get from Yellow House to Veckatimest. Between those records, though, they’d not only toured but issued singles and splits, EPs and remixes. After long spans of shows for Veckatimest, however, Grizzly Bear went silent, or, to be more exact, its members lived their own lives. Trips were taken, and friendships were restored; families were visited, and solo projects were finished. The potential energy gathered in tour vans and busses, in studios and on stages for years was finally released, giving the individual band’s pieces the chance to recover and, after a year, return to being Grizzly Bear.

The quartet first reconvened last summer in Marfa, Texas, with the loose plan of rehearsing and demoing new material and seeing where potential songs for the next album stood. Almost nothing stuck, but that was fine. In Texas, they were reconnecting as friends and musicians, and the material would surely come. Against the inclination of the digital world, they took their time.

“Clearly everyone had been in a very different space,” says Rossen, “so most of the Marfa time was seeing each other again, trying things and feeling each other out. We all had to meet each other again.”

When they reconvened in January, again at the immortalized Yellow House in Cape Cod, they were anxious to return to Grizzly Bear. Indeed, Shields depends upon the urgency of a band whose members have opted back in. For the first time, they wrote more songs than they needed and scrupulously edited the ideas. For the first time, Rossen and Droste wrote songs together, taking each other’s ideas and extending them and executing them with a new vitality. And for the first time, they tended to move forward only with the songs that were most open to true quartet collaboration. Asked which tunes on Shields belong to which songwriter, every member balks and explains that, for the first time, these are actually full-band numbers. Both in process and product, this is Grizzly Bear as they’ve never been.

“Sun in Your Eyes,” the seven-minute close to Shields, stemmed from a piano melody Droste wrote and discarded but that Rossen picked up as a pet project and spent weeks building, changing and rebuilding. The result is one of the most brilliant and audacious pieces of Grizzly Bear’s oeuvre, dependent upon the same mix of drive and drift that shapes the bulk of Shields. Though soft at the edges, “Yet Again” pushes toward the status of rock anthem, with a bridge that refracts dance beats through a musical kaleidoscope; the slow creep of “What’s Wrong” commands an answer, its antiphonal vocals and anxious strings giving voice to a frown and a sigh. Those open emotions are an integral part of Shields, the most cohesively written album of Grizzly Bear’s career. The words come matched by a sound that is more passionate than proper, a quality earned by spending less time on the perfect take than on the proper feeling.

“This has a different energy behind it,” concludes Droste. “Veckatimest was a little more of a polite album; the desire to keep the vocals smooth might have kept a little distance between us and the audience. This one feels a bit more rough and exposed, so that on Shields, everything speaks for itself.”

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