Success seems to be weighing on Jamie Smith. Or at least all the talking that comes with it.
The British producer, who is one-third of the quietly smoldering electro-pop group the xx, sounds weary and a little bored over the phone from London, where his lauded band is rehearsing for the TV show Later ... with Jools Holland. He's been doing interviews all day between rehearsals, and he's clearly a bit tired of answering questions like, "What were your thoughts and goals going into making this new record?"
Still, we want to know.
"Well, I don't think we really thought about it much," Smith says of Coexist, the second album from the young Mercury Music Prize-winners. "But now we're doing all these interviews, and people ask that quite a lot. Makes me think that we should've thought a little more."
"Well I don't know. They just all expect us to have carefully considered every move of our album."
Indeed, we do — because Coexist sounds nothing if not carefully considered, maybe even agonized over. And, as Smith eventually reveals, it was.
The xx arrived as minimalists, depositing languorous ribbons of reverb-heavy guitar over barely-there beats. On the band's first album, guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim sang in hushed tones inside a vast expanse of blackness, and the contrast brought an exhilarating sense of intimacy. The trio's intriguing sound and success helped usher in a new pop tolerance of negative space, an appreciation of the power of silence that artists like the Weeknd, Drake, and Frank Ocean have continued to explore.
Compared to the group's debut, Coexist is even emptier — or, if you prefer, more spacious. And as Smith eventually explains, that's intentional. "I think in new music the use of space has become more acceptable," he says. "It was nice to try and push some boundaries of how much space we can actually put in this album."
There may be a bit too much room, though. While a follow-up effort to a debut as acclaimed as the xx's is always fraught, there's an odd sense of purposelessness to some of the new songs. Few of the album's early tracks make a strong impression; some, like "Chained," unfold into propellent rhythms that simply end without going anywhere. Inside the record's cavernous interior are lyrics that obsess, in one song after another, about the loss of intimacy in a relationship between two people. "Did I hold you too tight?" Croft asks in "Chained." "Did I not let enough light in?" The xx's lyrics have always been myopic and vague, but the playfulness of early songs like "VCR" has been replaced with this melancholy fixation. Sometimes, like on "Our Song," the cryptic exploration of loss is poignant and penetrating; more often, it's tiring.
Still, the album has its moments: On "Reunion," the fifth track, Croft and Sim quietly tangle over a lush soundscape rimmed with steel drums, flecks of electric guitar, and subterranean bass. As a beat fades in under the pitter-patter of the drums, there are moments reminiscent of "Far Nearer," a gorgeous instrumental track Smith released on his own in 2010. "Tides" is another new highlight, with an understated guitar line finding support in one of Smith's signature skeletal rhythms. Over it, Croft and Sim whisper-sing in unison: "You leave with the tide/ I can't stop you leaving/ I can see it in your eyes/ Some things have lost their meaning."
Despite the darkness that pervades these songs, Smith says the members' relationships with each other haven't suffered from the attention and the months of touring. While it can be difficult for young bands, especially acclaimed ones, to shut out exterior pressures and expectations, he says that wasn't an issue with making Coexist: "We're such close friends, and if any of us let any one of us down, it would be much more of a big deal than if anybody else didn't like the album."
The follow-up hasn't gotten the ecstatic reception of the debut, but it's still probably enough to cement the xx's place at the top-tier of young indie acts. Clearly, as their current schedule evidences, Smith and Co. are in demand. He says he's eager to get out of the London press frenzy and on the road in the States, where the band will make a rare festival appearance at Treasure Island.
So how does such a quiet, deliberate band fare with the broad expanses and capricious audiences of a large festival? Smith sounds intrigued: "It's nice to play for an audience that aren't your own and introduce them to your music," he says. "It's quite a challenge. And at the right festival it can be the best show ever."
We just have one more question before we turn Smith over to his next interview or rehearsal or whatever: What does he see for the future of this ever-so-promising band?
"That's something that we try not to think about too much," he says, trailing off into silence. Smith seems to think about things more than he wants to let on, but at this point, we decide to take his word for it.