Preceded by the somnolent "Fantasy," "Shelter" immediately picks up where the slow-burning chords of "Fantasy" conclude. "Fantasy" isolates co-singer Jamie XX, whereas Romy Madley Croft takes all the vocals on "Shelter." Still, despite being separated by track numbers, their voices manage to compliment each other; Jamie's haunting vocals sound distant and hazy, whereas Croft's lucidity awakens the album from its brief slumber. The connection between "Fantasy" and "Shelter" epitomizes the cohesion of the XX: it juxtaposes ideas (both lyrically and sonically), repeats motifs, and, while not afraid of occasionally cranking the bass's volume, refuses to tinker with the album's incredible warmth and intimacy. The whole album really needs to be heard without interruption, but, for this post, "Shelter" gets the special treatment.
I have a particular liking for ethereal female vox (Azure Ray's "November" might be my all-time favorite song from a female-lead), but the wounded clarity in Croft's voice especially moved me. While her voice's lucidity exudes confidence, particularly after the bedside mumbles in "Fantasy," its slight quivering underscores the vulnerability and paranoia in her words:
I find shelter, in this way
Under cover, hide away
Can you hear, when I say,
I have never felt this way?
Maybe I had said something that was wrong.
Can I make it better with the lights turned on?
Croft's use of simple juxtapositions (the apparent theme of an album whose cover is black and white) like light/dark and uncovered/covered raises complex questions, even about the song's fundamental meaning. Is it a love song? "I still want to drown, whenever you leave / Please teach me gently, how to breathe" makes it appear so. But, if the song really continues the narrative of "Fantasy," these bedside struggles in the dark problematize this romance, suggesting separation and perhaps even a loss of intimacy in what is ironically an extremely intimate album. And because the chorus repeats as the volumes slowly fades, there is no resolution, no happy ending -- just a beautiful, enigmatic, and, well, sad unanswered question.