The Breakdown: “Heart Skipped A Beat” by the xx

Howdy there, before y’all start reading, I just wanted to explain the idea behind these articles. Each week, I’ll take a song or piece (it’s a piece if there is no singer) I absolutely adore or even despise and break it down in parts. I’m pulling a little bit from musical theory, a little bit from lyrical theory and a little from personal experience. That’s a lie, it’s a lot of personal experience. But in truth, it’s not because I’m trying to sanitize the music. What makes a piece or a song special is how it builds those connections with its listeners. To that end, these articles aren’t breakdowns on how to listen a song, but rather how I listen to a song. If anything, the former would be a pretentious effort. So, if you’re still willing, I hope you enjoy this written portal into my music obsessed mind. 

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It’s a truly peculiar feeling, when the heart miscalculates.

Suddenly jumping into arrhythmia, it’s the equivalent of breaking a wave and watching as two more sail under before the boat catches tide again. And funnily, remembering the metaphor for the experience is easier than remembering the first time my heart ever hopped over itself.

What I do remember is the first time I listened to “Heart Skipped A Beat.”

Not just hearing either—actually listening and letting the whale devour me. A tad obsessive, but how could I not when the bass-clap rhythm kicks in? Just try and follow along to this duetting percussion:

One, clap-clap, two, clap, three-pause-four, clap-clap. One, clap-clap, two, clap, three-pause-four, clap-clap. Guitar.

Romy Madley Croft plucks up-down, back-and-forth across the the guitar neck. The melody is light yet fills that space over each thud and clap. With three layers introduced, the song grooves without a second though.

Remembering the first time the heart skipped a beat may pose a challenge. But remembering the first time the xx induced my heart to swallow itself whole? Not a damn problem: it took two bars and not a phrase more, but Oliver Sim’s opening lines sure help:

Please don’t say we’re done when I’m not finished
‘Cause I could give so much more
Make you feel like never before
Welcome, they said welcome to the floor

The lyrics describe the break-up that remains stubbornly in place, unable to move on. And Sim’s voice sings not unlike the soul watching that bad break-up walking towards it on the street. The mind overfills with anxiety no answers can peace. And all questions boil down to one: “what happens next?”

They could ignore them, scream at them, turn back ‘round and run from them. Too late, damage done: the heart already skipped a beat and the lips primed to say something. Too late, Sim already said it all.

From one perspective. But here comes Croft:

It’s been a while and you’ve found someone better
But I’ve been waiting too long to give this up
The more I see, I understand
But sometimes, I still need you

Mimicking that bass-clap beat, Croft and Sim engage in a duet about two exes who still flash with nervousness every time they see each other. They call and respond with the last line: “sometimes, I still need you.”

Just like the percussion, they engrave that line, etching it into the skin with simple repetition. With textbook minimalist electropop, the xx never delve into every layer of complexity, they simply present it with catchy melodies and a percussion that sinks in.

It’s not a tad obsessive then, to liken the tune to a man-eating Moby Dick. But instead of bludgeoning bones with a titanic crush, the instruments knock like a reflex hammer. Trained to achieve a response.

And this holds true again on each instrumental break, instruments pounding on each note multiple times to make sure the listener understands how obsessed the narrators are on this failed relationship. Baria Qureshi’s keyboards, Croft’s guitar, Sim’s bass. Each solo works to reinforce the lyrical content and, inevitably, the lyrical content reinforces Jamie Smith’s unconventional percussion.

The percussion skips a beat and everyone else is there to insure something was felt. Fingerpicking down the spine, a keyboard flutter under skin, a percussive palpitation in the blood stream. Something is still there, no matter how much else is removed.

Every album contains a highlight. Well, perhaps that’s too broad a brush—scratch it—some records are just plain terrible. Mercy to our ears, we don’t hear them due to the same engine overplaying hit singles until the gut is at full nausea.

In most cases, the best records not only display some cuts with the pomp of a Dutch window girl, but also guard a secretly infectious track inside. Regardless of the overall quality of the band, the record, the producer, some cuts filter through with a perfection that need not be touched.

The lyrics, the melodies, the beat, they all work and come to a head in “Heart Skipped A Beat” to remind the listener that true love is never lost, that the heart never stops feeling—it just skips a beat.