The xx. Photo: Alexandra Waespi. Photo courtesy of Beggars USA.

By David Von Nordheim, A&E Editor for The Current

Grade: B+

With The xx’s new album “Coexist” indie rock may very well have its answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Just as Dylan’s threadbare opus gave listeners a window into his crumbling marriage with first wife Sara Lownds,

The xx’s latest release, the aptly titled “Coexist,” is a concept album of sorts framed around the theme of emotional interdependence.

Of course, The xx’s fragile micro-music always suggested a capacity for poignancy but “Coexist” makes the emotional turbulence far more explicit. Indeed, if their debut album “xx” was naked, then “Coexist” is practically skeletal.

The heart of The xx remains dual vocalists Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. They sound just as lost and lovelorn as ever here, but while their exchanges on debut singles like “Crystallized” and “Heart Skipped a Beat” seemed downright sexy, the intimacy between them is put to dramatically different effect on “Coexist.” While their personae on “xx” seemed to desperately crave love and emotional fulfillment, “Coexist” finds them regretting the naivety of youth, even if it was only two years prior.

Tellingly, the lyrics are almost entirely in the second person, and with the exception of haunting opener “Angels,” are all framed as an extended dialogue between two estranged ex-lovers. Conflicted and vulnerable, Croft and Sim seem to suffer from every feeling on the emotional spectrum, often within the span of a single song: from self-delusion on “Unfold” (“In my head you tell me things you’ve never said/I choose to take the best and forget the rest”); to self-pity on “Sunset” (“It felt like you really knew me/ now it seems you just look through me”) and spitefulness on “Our Song” (“I know all the words to take you apart”). As its title suggests, the album is obsessed with human relationships and their frequently painful consequences.

The new-found bleakness is not just limited to the subject matter either. While The xx’s debut was eloquent in its sparseness, cobbled together from rudimentary drum patterns and minimal guitar riffs, “Coexist” is practically ambient in its simplicity. Producer and member Jamie xx, considered by many to be a pioneering figure of the “post-dubstep” movement, anchors each track with an insistent metallic pulse, the sole sign of life within the album’s otherwise desolate soundscape.

Though “Coexist” thrives (or withers, depending on one’s perspective) on its bleakness, xx periodically provides the listener with diversions from the emotional fallout. From the ethereal synth lines of “Try” to the steel drum of “Reunion,” the album is littered with moments of fleeting comfort and beauty. Once it finds its footing, “Coexist” is nothing short of hypnotic.

At a compact 37 minute runtime, just slightly over half the length of their debut, “Coexist” is also far more streamlined in its craft. The album’s pacing is mesmerizing, almost theatrical in its ability to forge an emotional connection with the listener and ratchet it to an unbearable climax. As the longing becomes almost unbearable in album closer “Our Song,” the spell is abruptly broken as the track gives way to a cavernous wash of static, the closest thing to resolution The xx is willing to give.

While most bands use their sophomore release as an opportunity to expand and develop their sound, The xx opts for the opposite approach with “Coexist,” making their already hauntingly atmospheric music even more insular, bleak and stripped-down. It was exactly the follow-up The xx needed to make, proving that there is still room for growth – and decay – in their impossibly gaunt music.