Pop was weird in 2009. It was in a state of change and its purveyors were determined to make it big, bold and brazen. A far cry from a world where Khalid could score a megahit with the restrained Talk, The Black Eyed Peas were forcing EDM into the mainstream with Boom Boom Pow, Lady Gaga was bringing theatrics back with The Fame and Katy Perry was coming at the charts from a sugar-coated cannon. And yet, amongst all the noise, three friends from London emerged to find quiet.
Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim hailed from Wandsworth, London. In 2009, they had officially been a band called The xx for four years, stirring the blogs with their minimal, quaint pop music. It was part-R&B, part-electronic, finding them labelled with a string of misplaced comparisons that ranged from Hot Chip to The Temper Trap, who were also coming up at the time. Meanwhile, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors were wooing the critics with music that provided a far denser landscape than what The xx were offering.
The xx’s debut album was uncomplicated as The xx were. They were three friends from school, navigating their late teens and early twenties. Love, anxiety, nostalgia and youth were the themes and while all three seemed uncomfortable expressing themselves, they found strength in each other. It was an unfiltered peak into the private life of these three young friends that resonated with the world.
“The songs were so personal. When we were writing it we didn’t think that many people were going to hear it,” Madley Croft told the BBC, reflecting on the album’s anniversary this year.
There’s a sense of that across the whole record. It’s hard to imagine a shy teen intentionally singing “I am yours now” (Islands) over a minimal beat knowing that in a few years she would be singing it to thousands of people. That’s what made this debut so special. It was insular but sincere. No record label had heavily intervened nor were superstar producers involved.
Critics at the time praised The xx for being so minimal but there was nothing calculated about what The xx were doing. It was simply an honest reflection of their talents at the time.
“It was a rule in a way, everything that was on the album is exactly how we play it live,” Madley Croft said.
“We were being complimented on things that we weren’t entirely aware of,” Sim added.
As modest as they may be, The xx had struck gold and it resonated very quickly. Fans were collected fast with everyone finding a piece of themselves within the record. It was sparse enough that there was room for everyone. VCR felt familiar and warm, Heart Skipped A Beat encapsulated the giddy romance of teenage love and loss while Stars shut out the world. Madley Croft and Sim essentially were duet partners, acting as two sides of a story but essentially telling their own narrative.
Meanwhile, Smith provided a backdrop that matched the intimacy of what was said. At moments, the beat hushed and we were left with just bass and keys. If the melodies didn’t stack up it would’ve been bordering on dull but their songwriting was air-tight and the songs became the sound of a generation soundtracking everything from 90210 to Misfits.
While other indie records at the time may have felt difficult to enter because they were vast, layered beasts, The xx’s was accessible. It was theirs until it was ours. We speculated about some of the more metaphorical lyrics and often were completely wrong. Madley Croft had to tell a Guardian journalist adamantly that she hadn’t written any of the songs about sex.
This black album with a white ‘X’ on the front suddenly became the world’s favourite album. Jay-Z and Beyoncé were front row at their first Coachella show, they bagged the prestigious Mercury Prize and later Drake and Rihanna came knocking for production. A decade on, the impact still remains. London Grammar adopted the same minimalist electronics for their successful debut, Wet captured the unfiltered intimacy in their early works and even Beyoncé’s Frank Ocean penned I Miss You borrows their directness.
The band are three albums in now and a lot has changed. For starters, they’re acutely aware that people are listening now. It may have bothered them on their intensely insular sophomore record Coexist but on I See You they came ready to embrace the people. Now entering their 30s, the teenage awkwardness has been replaced with a quiet confidence. They’re still not rockstars but they’ve recognised that other people want to be inside their world. They’ve grown beyond their debut without having to chase the success of it. While some may spend their lifetime trying to write a record as present as The xx, the band themselves are moving on.