Review: The xx, I See You

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Amidst complaints about the years-long hiatuses of critically beloved acts like Frank Ocean (mercifully resolved) and Japandroids (soon-to-be mercifully resolved!), it’s easy to forget that it’s been nearly four and half years since the xx’s sophomore effort Coexist. Part of that quiet absence can be attributed to the current popular music climate, which plays fast and loose with a sonic template that the xx helped usher into the mainstream. Direct imitators have popped up like dandelions in the last half-decade, ranging from moderately engaging (London Grammar) to those that collapse under the weight of their own weepy portent (Wet). Beyond mere sound-alikes, pop artists all across the spectrum (see: Beyonce, the Weeknd, Rihanna) have almost uniformly descended into the realm of the nocturnal, bolstered by breathy confessions, cavernous beats, and moody atmosphere. Naked emotionalism and the dark night of the musical soul are super trendy right now, and we have Oliver Sim, Romy Madley-Croft, and Jamie xx to thank for that.

With so much music that apes the xx’s vibe, the band faces a twofold challenge heading into their third record, I See You — not only to remain unique in a more crowded field of competitors, but also to make an album that doesn’t sound exactly like their first two releases. To be honest, the xx have spent their entire careers trying to match the dizzying high and intrigue of the opening seconds of xx’s “Intro”. The closest analogue is, surprisingly, Vampire Weekend. Faced with the prospect of following up a critically beloved, sonically inventive debut, both late-Aughts bands doubled down on those qualities that made them endearing to some and deeply alienating to others. The result was a pair of sophomore albums that essentially photocopied their debuts, but with diminishing returns that proved ultimately forgettable in the long run (when was the last time you broke out Contra?) Thankfully, much like VW did with Modern Vampires of the City in 2013, the xx’s I See You is a calculated, but deeply exciting creative leap forward. The band retains its core strengths (pillowtalk vocals, echoing, urbane guitar lines) while expanding its sonic reach and stretching for the bleacher seats. It’s an excellent and surprisingly comforting way to begin 2017.

The most obvious influence on I See You is Jamie xx’s excellent 2015 solo debut In Colour. Indeed, the producing wunderkind of the band seems to have much more sway this time around. Opener “Dangerous” bursts forth with a piercing horn fanfare before tumbling into a thumping club-ready beat that’s easily the most danceable thing in the band’s catalog. It’s exhilarating, and ultimately a bit of a fakeout — the xx hasn’t gone all Discovery on us. But what it represents is the band’s newfound willingness to incorporate sampling and Jamie xx’s DJ flourishes into its sound. These touches never overwhelm the band’s songwriting, but rather complement it. On “Lips”, the band samples the mournful female operatics of David Lang’s “Just (After Song of Songs)” to great effect, as the back and forth of “just your love, just your voice” melds perfectly with Madley-Croft’s guitar tremolos and accompanying vocal melody. At first glance, the band’s much-publicized sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” on lead single “On Hold” seems like an odd choice, but the ghostly distortion of Hall’s lyrics over the otherwise wordless, skittering chorus amplifies the sense of interpersonal confusion conveyed by Sim and Romy’s duet. Ultimately, these small, but effective contributions pour some of Jamie xx’s titular colour into the band’s previously stark greyscale world, enlivening the band’s aesthetic while never overpowering it.

Beyond production techniques, this collection of songs resonates with a musculature far bigger and more stadium-ready than anything the trio has previously released. Madley-Croft’s time in songwriting boot camp during the band’s hiatus is clearly on display on the propulsive, hand-clapping “I Dare You,” perhaps the most conventional “pop” song here. Elsewhere, the gorgeous “Say Something Loving” opens with a soaring, Edge-like guitar line before collapsing into the world’s politest dubstep breakdown and an urgent chorus that’s just itching to be belted by thousands of swooning festival-goers. “A Violent Noise” sounds like the sequel to Jamie xx and Sim’s own “Stranger in a Room” from In Colour. Urgent percussion and pulsating pops of synth serve as prelude for an explosive dénouement where Madley-Croft’s guitar lines soar skyward against Sim’s mournful crooning. Perhaps best of all is “Replica”, a gradual slow-burner where Sim and Madley-Croft’s vocals reach a perfect, achingly sexy convergence on the refrain “they all say, I will become a replica / your mistakes were, only chemical,” just before a breathless breakdown of guitar stabs and the ghost of the xx’s beloved steel drums.

Accompanying this larger sound is more confident vocal performances from the band’s two singers. Sim and Madley-Croft’s admittedly limited ranges were always an unexpected highlight of the band’s chemistry, their whispers and slurs perfectly evoking the nights and mornings-after that their songs explore. Still, it’s exciting to hear them stretch themselves on I See You. Madley-Croft, especially, elevates the weepy “Performance”, the most “conventional” xx track on I See You, above its mournful string arrangement by attempting to hit higher notes with more force. The same goes for the Beach House-evoking “Brave for You”, where her breathy delivery amplifies the aura of spacey atmosphere conjured by the song’s spectral chimes and spiraling guitar melody.

The xx have always trafficked in heartbreak, but their lyrics about longing, loss, and lust seem more relevant than ever. The years since the band released Coexist have seen an explosion of dating apps and services. Lyrics like “I do myself a disservice / to feel this weak, to be this nervous” and “chemistry is rare in a two, three-time affair” adopt greater resonance in a world where your next regret is merely a swipe away. Yet, for all of their glacial cool, their vocal performances still radiate a warmth that has been so essential to the band’s success. There are even times, such as “I Dare You” and “Dangerous”, where Madley-Croft and Sim may sound somewhat, dare I say it, happy. That’s change we can all believe in.

The only place that the band slips up is on the shapeless closer “Test Me”, where the initially beautiful piano melody gives way to a mess of sirens and reverb. However, it’s a small price to pay for what is otherwise the best record of the xx’s career. As Sim sings on “Replica”, with maybe a little bit of irony, “second time around, feels like the song’s already been sung.” Before I See You, I may have been ready to say that about the xx, fearful that they would be doomed to forever repeat themselves into irrelevance. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. A MINUS