Oliver Sim is a handsome man. There’s something elfin about him, amber eyes and a smile halfway between a rascal and a movie star. It’s a face that belongs on an album cover, but it doesn’t fit the minimalist aesthetic of his band, The xx. Sim has been playing bass and singing with guitarist Romy Madley Croft since he was 15 years old – more than half his life – while Jamie xx tinkers with drum machines and beats in the background. When the group released their first album in 2009, there was more emotion in the pauses between chords than in entire discographies of their indie peers. Her “Intro” has millions of views on YouTube, especially as a loop in the one, three or ten hour version.
Two more albums followed, Jamie xx and Croft released their first solo pieces. So now Sim, who never planned to make music alone and who now has so much to say. It was his bandmates who took away his last fears, he reveals in interviews. The cover of the debut actually shows his face – or what’s left of it.
Razor blades stuck into his skin like tiny shelves, each with a letter: “Oliver Sim” on nine blades in his throat, the album title on his forehead, cheeks, lids. “Hideous Bastard” it says, “hideous bastard”. Blood everywhere. But Sim looks to the side curiously, even amused. What’s so funny? It could be the relief.
He has been living with HIV for 15 years
“Radical honesty could set me free,” Sim sings in the opener “Hideous” and reveals his secret in the next few lines: The 32-year-old has been living with HIV since he was 17 years old. The prejudices that affect gay men like him are still there: “Ugly”, “perverted” and “disgusting” are attributions that riddle the text like razor blades Sim’s portrait. And yet it’s an uplifting song.
The arrangements in it sound like a mixture of Radiohead in the best “In Rainbows” times and Jamie xx’s talent for giving lightness to even the greatest melancholy. He produced the album and you can hear that. “GMT” begins as a breakup ballad with a humming chorus in the background. As soon as the beat starts, it hurts less: “I’ll be fine if I miss you.” It never gets too sweet. “Sensitive Child,” for example, is based on a sample of Del Shannon’s 1975 heartbreak song “Break Up”; Oliver Sim and Jamie xx turn it into a bass-heavy, angry hit.
Sim’s baritone runs through everything. As with The xx, it’s often a tiptoe chant, but it’s on “Hideous” that the first surprise comes: he screams, and it sounds like the relief of finally having a weight off his shoulders. It has nothing to do with the teenage fear of the first years of the band. On this album, an adult artist speaks and sings.
Singing on tiptoe
The magic of The xx was that they made so much out of so little. Individual guitar and bass notes swung endlessly, many of the lyrics described the cosmos of a loving couple, detached from space and time. But also: no “boy meets girl”, just “you and I”. That had charm, as this type of songwriting was open to interpretations beyond the heterosexual. And it was naïve in the best sense of the word, because what should teenagers say about love?
Sim and his bandmate Croft are now speaking from experience. Where Croft picks up on her early DJ attempts in London lesbian clubs in her debut single “Lifetime”, Sim pours the big themes of his album – gay shame, fear and overcoming them – into his preferred genre: horror.