Album Review: The xx: I See You (2017)

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Intros can be pretty useful in stating an album’s purpose, as no band should understand better than The xx. The ‘Intro’ from their debut album, released in 2009, heralded a brand new wave of downbeat indie with its slow-motion collision course of hushed guitars, synths, and drum sequencers. It would come to define that album’s quietly revolutionary approach.

Their second album, Coexist, was released in 2012 and its intro was a reverb-laden guitar lead muffled by the deep silence surrounding it – a familiar trick of the band’s. It would come to define that album’s levelled accusations of stagnation, which were hard to deny in many respects, even if it was evidently ‘cornier’ than the debut (read: ‘happier’).

Their third album, I See You, will also come to be defined by its intro. It begins with horns playing a sequence that sounds eerily similar to Rihanna’s intro for ‘Woo’, and then quickly lurches into louder, tougher drum syncopations than the band have ever dabbled in before. We’re in for something different, and we’re hooked.

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention will know that it’s not a complete departure for all of the band: in 2015 producer/synth-and-drums-meister Jamie xx released his solo debut, In Colour, a DJ set that included enough dancefloor bangers to get on the nerves of electro-aesthete purists. But its up-tempo beats sounded just fine to crude pop fans, such as myself, and the album’s success gave Jamie the chance to bring his voracious aural appetite to the table this time around with The xx.

Their sound has always been famous for its lack of wasted space, pared down to the bare-boned musical essentials, and impressively I See You maintains that quality-control even whilst piling up multi-layered vocals and sound effects on the tracks. The use of samples, over which much fuss has already been made, are typically limited to moments where they are most needed: Hall & Oates answering the band’s disquiet with ‘Where does it stop?’ on lead single ‘On Hold’, Alessia warning them to say something loving ‘before it slips away’, Trio Mediaeval offering sexual advice on the audacious ‘Lips’.

The samples are not remotely exploitative: they are a way of communicating with the past, and their musical heros offer some sage advice on how to overcome the romantic insecurities that have always been a mainstay of their music.

Singer/songwriters Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft have warmly embraced Jamie’s need to push the band into upbeat territory. As Croft sings in her distinct quavering tones: ‘A rush of blood is not enough/I need my feelings set on fire’. In real life she’s recently become engaged to visual artist Hannah Marshall, which may explain the explicit need for passion in the lyrics. At any rate, the music responds by dynamically igniting the rhythm section and piling on live string accompaniment throughout. The xx have never been afraid of a little romanticism, so this album’s move towards melodrama feel unforced and only occasionally excessive (‘Brave For You’ is a little mawkish).

No song here is as gorgeous or immediate as ‘VCR’ or ‘Islands’ from their debut, but I See You is a classic grower. Play it once or twice and it will fade unnoticed into the background. Yet play it once or twice more and its brave, unironic emotionalism will suddenly have you punching the air.

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