The xx has always presented a bit of a paradox. Their cerebral brand of electronica often seems best suited to wandering an empty, unfamiliar city in the early hours of the morning, and yet the London-based trio have nonetheless found themselves selling out huge venues and even headlining summer festivals. Not bad for a band better known for playing with silence and space than turning out club-ready pop hits.
I See You () is the band’s first release since 2012, and the intervening years have not been wasted. They’ve retained much of the hazy dream-pop quality of their self-titled debut, while largely avoiding the pitfalls that marred their second album. Rather than retreating even further into their brooding, atmospheric aesthetic, The xx have instead opened up, with more adventurous production and a refreshing willingness to tweak and experiment with their style.
Their more energetic sound probably owes much to Jamie Smith’s 2015 solo dance album In Colour, but while the group has borrowed from their frontman’s brief diversion into EDM, they have done so selectively. The album’s tracks are still allowed to unfold gradually and deliberately, albeit with more bounce. Also notable is the foregrounding of of Romy Madley Croft, who now sings with a self-assurance that matches that of her childhood friend and co-vocalist Oliver Sim. While her breathy, almost whispered vocals all but defined the band’s first two albums, her lyrics for I See You soar rather than drift, most strikingly on the plaintive “Brave For You.”
The subtle yet expansive sound that marked their earlier albums is still there, but on I See You, it is brighter, bolder, and far more energetic. The horn section that announces the opener, “Dangerous,” is the first sign that this is a decidedly more extroverted band than the one we saw on their 2010 debut. With its sharp hooks and grinding, glitchy bass lines, “Dangerous” is a tough act to follow, but the blaring horns give way almost effortlessly to the bright piano, synth and steelpan of “Say Something Loving.” On both tracks, Madley Croft and Sim play off each other to great effect, going back and forth, trading quips and finishing each other’s thoughts with hairline precision and a chemistry rare in pop. Their lyrics are more personal than ever before, hinting at both vocalists’ experiences with loss, grief, heartbreak and addiction. Smith’s expertly layered arrangements lend the album a palpable intensity that creeps up slowly in the background, building and unfolding so organically it’s easy to miss until it has completely washed over the song. Their songs remain tinged with shades of yearning and regret, but this time around there is also a sense of confidence, even defiance.
As always, Smith’s production is precise and meticulous — the band is arguably as well-known for their perfectionism as for their introversion. A few tracks in, however, the album noticeably begins to lag and meander with “Performance” and “Replica.” While Smith received praise for his ability to blend disparate elements together to create a sense of nostalgic abandon on In Colour, he does not replicate his success the second time around. Some of the elements that imparted a warmth and familiarity to Smith’s dance music sound out of place on I See You. “On Hold,” for instance, is anchored by a Hall & Oates sample that comes across as an awkward afterthought tacked onto an otherwise decent single.
Despite losing their footing somewhat during the album’s midsection, The xx still delivers enough solid songwriting to keep I See You interesting. The final two tracks are especially good. “I Dare You” is suffused with a tense and uneasy intimacy, and sees Madley Croft and Sim at their very best. “Test Me,” meanwhile, is a sparse and haunting closer whose instrumentals nod back to the album’s first track. No longer triumphant this time, the single horn is grim, uncertain, and lingers in the background. As the instrumentals distort, dissipate and eventually fade out, an album that came in loud and brash literally goes out with a whine, as if to remind us that they are not ready to give up on the dark just yet.
For all this album’s innovation, it would be wrong to say that The xx have reinvented themselves. While they remain a cautious and reserved group at their core, they have matured and acquired a confidence that has allowed them to push their own boundaries and explore new directions, all while retaining the sultry, nocturnal sound that has defined them up to this point.
Despite its imperfections, I See You manages to find the elusive space between introversion and stark, honest emotion, a space The xx seems born to occupy.
I See You is available for sale at Amazon.com and on most streaming services, including Spotify.
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