Two of my favourite musical moments of 2009 were silences; the first was about one minute away from the climax of Skream’s remix of La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’
The other is the longest of the progressively longer ones on The XX’s ‘Stars’.
My relationship with The XX began in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in March 2009; I was on holiday but researching before the 2009 edition of The Camden Crawl. This research consisted of downloading the MySpace songs from each acts page and putting them into my never bettered Creative Zen MP3player so I could get through all 100+ acts and plan my weekend’s viewing.
My notes on The XX were “Dark brooding male female bleakness with pop hooks” based on ‘Stars’ and given they had only 4,000 MySpace friends at the time, I figured I’d be able to see them at The Great Escape in Brighton a few weeks later if nothing else. By the time both events rolled around, I couldn’t get anywhere near them, and instead, I had to make do with seeing Little Boots, Alessi’s Ark, The Invisible, Everything Everything, BLK JKS and The Big Pink. Some of which I have grainy photos taken on a BlackBerry.
Reading those two paragraphs back, it is hard to comprehend that this was 14 years ago, yet it all feels like I’m recalling seeing Little Richard playing in the late 1950s.
It wasn’t surprising that the band covered Aaliyah’s ‘Hot Like Fire’ as an iTunes bonus track for their Mercury Prize-winning debut; that smooth, sophisticated and slick R&B is much of an influence of what the band are doing here as the likes of 80’s influences Young Marble Giants and Vini Reilly. Mixed with the album’s nods to Italo Disco, ‘Wicked Game’ and Portishead are the right up-to-date ones - that air of both Burial and a text not sent from the top deck of a London bus at 3 am on a Saturday.
‘Stars’ is the best encapsulation of all this. While it was never released as a single, that prominence on MySpace meant it might as well have been, especially as none of the singles made much of a dent on BBC Radio 1. It is sleek, drums are brushed, and guitars are caressed. Jamie Smith’s beats bubble and pulse, and the vocals are whispered.
The obvious contrast to make with ‘Stars’ is with ‘Basic Space’. Both are seemingly about two sets of lovers at the start of their respective relationships.in ‘Basic Space’, the couple can’t get enough of each other and are at it like rabbits morning, noon and night. They sing, cooing at each other about how the lines between them are blurred, and they can’t tell where one person starts and the other finishes.
The difference with the new relationship in ‘Stars’; is that this one is much more centred on romance and, dare I say, love. Rather than “giving it all away on a first date”, there’s an acceptance from both parties that this relationship will stay the course, and as a result, they can wait rather than rush into it. It’s important to them both, but good things will come to those who wait.
Oliver Sim was interviewed by Beats for the album’s tenth anniversary and said those opening lines were his favourite on the album. (timestamp is 21:54)
There is something about that walking bass line in the song; it feels like an antimatter version of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’. Rather than digitally deleting the bass from that track, it was sent 25 years into the future to re-emerge as this song.
When couples have been together long enough, they become comfortable with long and short silences. As the record concludes, ‘Stars’ teases us with the sound of nothing but the image of Oliver and Romy Madley Croft staring across from each other in a South London cafe. They were saying everything by saying nothing.
I will try and keep mentions of this peak of human civilisation to once every few months, but I promise nothing!
This is all the more ironic because whenever I hear Radio One nowadays, all the music sounds like The XX to me.
This implies that across the two songs, there are four people in the two couples, but I would entertain any theory that suggested there were three people in total.
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Good one! I've not heard of The xx before. Name sounds like Elon's kid's nick name...but pretty cool, Mitchell!.