“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’”
– Umberto Eco
Come real love
Why do I refuse you?
– The xx, “Fiction”
It’s virtually a truism that the age of modernity is an age of disenchantment, in which the forms of transcendent belief that pervaded society, that humans swam in like fish in water, no longer provide that sustenance, that necessary oxygen. In the now-secular societies of the Global North, this state of affairs leads on the one hand to an existentialist crisis of meaning, and on the other to a fundamentalist turn. But at the personal level, how has this crisis been resolved? What has emerged to replace universalist religion as a source of transcendental meaning?
Romantic love, sexuality, and their permutations have stepped into this role (at least in the absence, and it usually is the absence, of labor experienced as meaningful) — whether transcendent fulfilment is sought in the figure of “the one” or whether the realm of sensual, sexual pleasures is itself seen as utopia.
But we (not-so-post) modern Romantics — and popular musicians, for the most part, who are consummate Romantics attempting to use “Art” to wrest transcendence and authenticity from a rationalized world — should beware when taking such love as a human universal. A second truism, at least among those who study these things, is the historical invention of romantic love. This love is a Fiction, but one that most of us believe and live, willy-nilly. Or, as The xx put it on opener “Angels,”
“If someone believed me
They would be as in love with you as I am
They would be in love, love, love.”
In light of this, we need not wonder why love, and the crypto-Godlike figure of the Beloved, is the subject of artistic endeavor (perhaps even more so in popular music than elsewhere). We might lament the apoliticality and misrecognition of the orientation, but we can understand how it has come to be.
On Coexist, The xx (aurally) incarnate the naïve and clichéd hegemony of this love-with-a-capital-L. Their architectural silences and lip-surface whispers enact the hushed solemnity of the cathedral — their gnomic titles, scripture. A line from “Missing” runs, “My heart is beating in a different way,” but the beating of Coexist’s heart is instead intimately familiar, lyrically and sonically. It’s the unmistakeable sound we were enamored of, in thrall to, on their debut album: the same smoky boy-girl vocals, the same echobeats, the same crystalline, half-asleep new-wave guitar lines.
But does familiarity breed contempt? I don’t mean to be a cynic or, as Dave Eggers (misguidedly) put it, a butterfly collector. The relationship between the critic and the critiqued is dyadic in the same way as the love relationship, at least as it is usually represented in music: the subject speaks to the object. This separation, as psychoanalysts know, is in itself painful; though some think that, if managed successfully, separation is an act of of maturity. But this is a maturity premised on an individualistic XY model, rather than a more stereotypically XX interdependence. And such maturity would come at the cost of existing in the “common unhappiness” of separate selfhood. To bring it back to the spot we’ve marked: in the case of The xx, separation anxiety coexists in the reviewed and the review. And the question is thus raised: are we dealing with coexistence or codependence?
The concept of codependence emerged not only from psychoanalysis, but also from AA. Contrariwise, Coexist is definitely an album for the cocktail hour or for red wine. Alcohol has always been a prop to romance, but only in the short term: where xx was an album that got its hooks in you, Coexist becomes a somnolent atmosphere-in-itself, in which hooks are conspicuous by their absence. It all works best when the tempo rises (relatively speaking), as on “Tides” and “Swept Away;” still, the pulse races placidly. Peaceful coexistence it is, but we could also say that peaceful coexistence is nothing but a dream.