Producer Jamie Smith, otherwise known as Jamie xx, is one of the most quietly influential artists of the last decade. The xx’s self-titled 2009 debut brokered a brilliant one-night stand between trip-hop and late-Aughts indie pop. A relationship further consummated by We’re New Here, Jamie xx’s 2011 collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron. It was a gorgeous 21st century sound — reverb suffused with breakbeats, pregnant pauses preempted by disembodied vocal samples, silence as a crucial musical instrument. This was Noir & B. A new musical language of intimacy, both in sound and in content. Since then—from Rihanna to Drake to London Grammar—that aesthetic has become a critical component of modern pop songcraft. The natural culmination of his prior successes, Jamie xx’s solo debut In Colour is his most mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful work yet.
In Colour is a raver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. A collection of emotionally evocative soundscapes punctuated by more conventionally structured compositions. This is a record for headphones. Its grooves are deeply cut, its tumbling sonic swathes all-encompassing. It's an ear candy confection of the highest order. In Colour pushes Smith’s boundaries forward, embracing DJ and rave culture for a more nocturnal, omnivorous sound. The record flits between grime and spacey disco, gloomy greyscale and dayglo funk, for a woozy night out in the London underground and within Jamie xx’s own head.
Smith has always been a DJ and remix artist, but his clubbier tendencies have never been more explicit than on In Colour. Finally, Jamie xx has a chance to flex his turntable muscles and the results are quite compelling. Eerie, whirring opener “Gosh” is the perfect table setter, incorporating excited English football commentary into a shuffling, slow-building electro number. Anything goes in this discotheque. Spectral vocal samples swirl and shimmer like ghosts in the machine on the skittering “Sleep Sound” and grand closer “Girl”. These songs aren’t nearly as frenetic or immediate as typical club tracks, but it would be reductive to view these minimalist numbers as templates for future remixes. In fact, the glacial grandeur of Jamie xx’s compositions often lies in their restraint. When Smith does in fact go for heavier techno sounds, he emerges with something else entirely. The pummeling, industrial “Hold Tight” resembles a recent Trent Reznor film score outtake.
Even as it pursues a dancier sound, fans of the xx will find plenty to love on In Colour. “Obvs” and “The Rest Is Noise” indulge in trademark xx elements. The former is a steel drum colossus, the latter a late-night drive of beautifully layered guitar and handclaps. Then, of course, there are welcome familiar faces in vocal appearances from xx bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. Maddeningly but wisely, Jamie xx keeps the two singers on separate tracks like ex-lovers marooned in different rooms by an overanxious party host. The metaphor of “Seesaw” is an almost childishly simple one, but Madley-Croft’s breathy exhalations make it work. Even better is Sim’s sinewy croon on “Stranger in a Room”, the closest that In Colour comes to producing an exact Coexist replica. All pale in comparison, though, to the sublime “Loud Places”. Madley-Croft and Smith construct a masterful last dance as religious communion, a self-empowering moment in which Romy’s “stranger in a room” is enraptured by a Greek chorus of club kids. It’s the album’s emotional and musical apex and a frontrunner for one of the best songs of the year.
I’d be remiss not to mention the beguilingly catchy “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, a bright wind-chimes dancehall number aided by Popcaan and the polarizing Young Thug. The rapper’s gleeful sexual entendres and the sunny Persuasions sample make for a clear outlier among In Colour’s otherwise dusky haze, but there doesn’t really need to be an explanation for this one. “Good Times” is a stellar summer song that throws the gloom of its predecessors into even starker contrast. The track doesn’t particularly belong on In Colour, but the album couldn’t exist without it.
In Colour exists between the hours of 1 and 6 AM. Somewhere between all-consuming intimacy and complete loneliness. That moment when the night has faded but the dawn has not yet emerged. Like much of Jamie xx’s body of work, it’s a chronicle of distance, both romantic and musical, a swooning love song for beat-loving introverts and sensitive ravers. More importantly though, the record takes a generous step beyond simply pleasing those demographics, opting instead for a broad palette that should both delight old fans and entice new fans alike. Jamie xx has conceived an impressive body electric onto which pillow-talkers can graft their own emotional gulfs. So go ahead, get lost in the record’s cavernous canvas and allow yourself to feel something. The rest is noise.
In Colour is out now on MP3, CD, and vinyl.