The xx, but not as you knew them.
The xx’s sound has become increasingly easy to find in recent years. Sparse and intricate, quiet and intimate, distilled in a kind of glacial cold that drifts and washes across their melodies. It’s a sound which seems to have influenced so many artists since their debut xx – London Grammar, Daughter and The Japanese House, to name a few. Even the pared-back guitar of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself has traces of their touch.
But with I See You, The xx have changed. Something new moves under the ice. There are warmer currents weaving through their music – stronger beats, larger melodies, whole new palettes of electronic sound. We’re taken far beyond the intimate dancing duets of xx and Coexist, into a soundscape which feels contoured and crafted rather than artistically minimal. The xx hallmarks are still there: the vocals still alternate between Romy and Oliver, the lyrics are still full of introspection and longing, the guitar lines are still left to linger on alone. Only now pulsing beats run on too, tied to samples and syncopated harmonies. These are songs which build and build into the kinds of crescendos the band have never previously approached (case in point: On Hold, the first single from the album). The explanation for this sea-change is clear – Jamie has brought across his work from In Colour, and flushed the band with fresh life. His work seems to run throughout the album, to the extent that several tracks could have easily been released solo Jamie xx songs. With the mix, they have found something entirely new. It can blast and course through you, or it can drop you in silence. It contrasts wide, open expanses of sound with intimate focus. For example, Lips takes the staple xx duet, then twists it with a choral harmony and heartbeat-like bass drum. Its sense of introspection has been turned inside-out.
Listening to opener Dangerous, you might not even be able to recognise the band if it weren’t for Romy’s and Oliver’s voices. A blare of trumpets brings you in, followed by a looping, slinking bass line and drum-machine rhythm. The new tone takes shape very quickly – an xx styled dance track. Some elements – that bass-line, for example – could easily have come from earlier work. But it is all transformed. Say Something Loving, the second track and single, carries on in the same vein with a vocal sample that stutters and morphs into the song’s underlying guitar riff. It’s the same, but different. The band haven’t shed their old style entirely, however. Performance is a return to their roots – a sparse and soul-searching soliloquy delivered by Romy over a single thread of melody.
The band have talked in recent interviews about their experience creating the album. There’s certainly a sense of catharsis running through the lyrics, especially in finisher Test Me, which seems to hint at past conflicts between the trio. It’s also noticeable that Romy and Oliver have changed their approach to writing their lines. In xx or Coexist, their vocals would be directed at each other but detached, like separate trains of thought heard at once. In I See You, it is as if they are finally reading from the same page. That sense of meeting – of coming together at last – is at the album’s heart. The title itself seems to refer to such a kind of exposure. Nothing has been hidden away.
The result is an exceptional album, which takes the band into a new kind of musical space. There are issues – on repeated listens, some songs do begin to blur into one another as repetitive aspects become more noticeable. Yet these cannot take away from what has been produced. The coldness has faded away to reveal something different but equally alive.