By Colin Gallant
The xx’s first album in four years is a much-needed reintroduction to the lovelorn trio whose eruption waned to a smolder with the passing of time (and trends) that followed the power of their debut.
Sophomore album Coexist (2012) skipped upping the ante of their unforgettable self-titled, instead honing minimalism and cementing their brand of melodramatic melody and vague intensity. During the four years between that likable but often forgettable work, producer and electronic multi-instrumentalist Jamie xx (née Smith) gambled on a solo album that had one big chart success and perhaps three or four songs worth remembering a year later. Despite this reviewer’s misgivings with In Colour, it nonetheless went on to dominate summer 2015.
Jumping to I See You, The xx have added a major heft to a sound that threatened to become tiresome. Most of the record displays an extra oomph of musical confidence and a restless need to push further rather than restrain and fall back. While it does suffer from a sagging midsection, I See You has some of the most exciting songs recorded by the band and affirms they won’t rest easy.
Four rattling blasts of horns ring out at the beginning of the album with the onset of “Dangerous. The use of horns alone is blindsiding, but the ease in which they jump to a dead sexy bassline cut apart by urgent garage drums is dizzying. The xx have always known how to start things off with a strong impression while setting the tone for an album: The xx’s “Intro” was wordlessly urging, Coexist’s “Angels” was achingly lulling, but “Dangerous” is abrupt and alarming and alive like no xx song before it. Best of all, it’s defiant.
“Let them say there are warning signs. They must be blind.”
Here and onwards, guitarist and co-vocalist Romy Madley Croft belts out her lyrics so assuredly it erases any memory of her excessively whispery style from previous releases. She and sparring partner Oliver Sim (whose honeyed baritone has grown from the band’s beginnings in pleasing increments, if never as drastically as Madley Croft’s) draw more excitingly on their not-lovers-but-more-than-friends dynamic than ever.
That continues on the next track, “Say Something Loving.” The pair trade off reiterations of one another’s unfinished thoughts and feelings of neediness, inadequacy and purity in their love. It’s not surprising to see the pair play expert foil to one another, but it’s a noticeable improvement on one of the band’s biggest strengths. The two are so in sync they become an echo, thematically suitable in the context of Jamie xx’s meticulous tidal phrasing of beats and delay that washes back and forth over the vocalists’ laments. It’s like a Caribbean sunset after just enough wine and constantly rewritten texts to a significant other.
Next up is “Lips,” an honest-to-God ode to doin’ it with that special someone. It’s mostly slinky, midnight samples and more sparing on analogue instrumentation than even the most digital songs released by the band in the past. “Pressed up against the ceiling, pushing down on me,” titillates Sim. It’s genuinely erotic and as exotic as three sheet-white 20-somethings from London can manage. The temperate flavour they coyly draw from the southern hemisphere is weighted eerily by a Druid-like choral sample that reels them back from cheese.
Closing the first third is “A Violent Noise.” The trio complement the electronic stretch taken on the previous song by anchoring an earthbound narrative about overstimulation and anxiety to a coiled guitar arpeggio. It’s both crispy and wet, unlike most xx songs in its textural complexity. So ends the best run of songs on the album.
“Performance” is where things take a dip. It’s like a beta version of “Infinity” from The xx, with less grandeur than it reaches for with the whole slow and steady, quiet-loud routine. The narrative is as vague as the band ever is, a string sample offering a limp substitute for genuine drama. In that just-right, downtrodden mood people most enjoy The xx in, it’ll do, but is ultimately a weaker version of some of their existing material. Unfortunately, this sour taste colours the next few downtempo numbers in the middle of the album.
The upward momentum of the first run of tracks promised an album-long ascent of a band reborn, or at least highly reinvigorated. By contrast, tracks 5-7 feel like naptime for the group. “Replica” and “Brave For You” rely on little more than catchphrases than well-executed emotionality. The latter is quite pretty in its twinkling instrumental, but betrayed by the overwrought lyrics and vocal delivery. Still, this phase capitalizes on how easy and cathartic in can be to sing along to dramatic love songs. It’s hard to fault a band for keeping on with what’s been their bread and butter throughout their career.
The final act is what saves I See You from being a half-effort. Twin pop songs “On Hold” and “I Dare You” are just so fun to sing along to that fussing over predictable lyrics never crosses one’s mind. The melodies so purely lovable that their Coldplay/Arcade Fire/Michael Bay adjacency is worth it.
The band knows it, too. Closing track “Test Me” is a briny olive after all that sugar. Self-hatred and lashing out at a partner are undercut by minimal piano and a reprise of glorious horns. After the band plainly lays out the ugliness of their feelings, an orchestra of disparate samples stampede over another and remind the listener that there always comes the moment to shut up and show rather than tell.
While I See You has plenty of great standalone songs sitting right next to weak ones, no piece of this album makes sense without the rest. It’s as imperfect as it should be.I See You, The xx