Release Date: Jan 13, 2017
Record label: Young Turks
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Indie Pop
Not counting the years of teasing and anticipation leading up to this moment, the last we heard from the xx was their 2012 sophomore album Coexist, a time that left their fate in a somewhat uncertain place. It was a gorgeous album to be sure, and featured some of the band’s strongest individual pieces to date, boiling down the acute sensitivity of their debut into a quivering, shattered beauty. Yet, in the process, they very nearly sucked the air out entirely from the project.
No matter how you frame it, January is widely regarded as a bit of a bummer. Whether it’s because of the Christmas comedown, the horribly cold weather or the lack of funds in the bank account, the first month of the year has a reputation for being just the worst. So what better time for The xx – who are renowned for their melancholic, downbeat soundscapes – to release their comeback album, I See You, after a five-year absence? On the face of it, the London trio’s return certainly seems like it’s been perfectly scheduled.
Five years since their sophomore album Coexist, The xx has taken their sound in a new direction. While the band stuck to stripped down singles like "Angels" on their last record, the trio have taken things in a more dynamic direction this time around. In fact, it sounds like the band have taken a page out of Jamie xx's book for the first half of the record and have gone back to the simple, clean production of their debut LP for the second half of it.
The xx’s self-titled debut remains one of the great sleeper hits of the last decade. No one—including, it’s fair to say, the xx themselves—expected that their murmuring blend of turn-of-the-millennium R&B and C86 indie pop would go on to sell a million copies and become hugely influential. But from the beginning, the London trio had a lot going for them.
In 2010, The xx played Coachella for the first time. Surrounded by a modest but enthusiastic crowd, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim hold the fort at the front of the stage, still unsure of their on-stage personas. Jamie Smith hunches protectively over his synths, dark glasses obscuring his expression. Even in their shyness and apprehension as a young band, one thing is clear: the power of their bond.
In music and love, routine can be deadly. The exquisite stillness of the xx's music was so distinctive and influential that, by the time of Coexist, it felt dangerously close to confining them instead of defining them. Given the half decade between that album and I See You, change wasn't just necessary, it was inevitable. Jamie xx's solo work signaled that something different was on the way, and in retrospect, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim's cameos on In Colour feel like previews for these songs about being musically and romantically bold.
It was one of 2016’s weirder musical phenomena: the sensation that huge chunks of the singles chart sounded oddly but irrefutably like the xx’s 2009 debut album. It was strange, not least because the xx’s debut album was so unassuming: packed with hushed, inward-looking songs, it sounded like music that was trying to avoid catching your eye, as if it was locked in an intense, personal conversation and didn’t want to be disturbed. You might have expected it to garner critical acclaim, to win the Mercury prize, to inspire a raft of other black-clad indie bands, all of which it did.
Without losing sight of their subdued, awkward charm, The xx have bit-by-bit become one of the biggest bands in the UK - both as a unit and on their own individual terms. Once pinned to the back of a stage, gadget-hugger Jamie has become especially huge, last year’s ‘In Colour’ solo debut putting him on the map for penning crossover, universal electronic music. Third album ‘I See You’ sees the trio taking full advantage of the producer’s big league status, applying his trademark to their traditionally gloomy, loved-up pop.
Stark minimalism has come to define the xx's artistic approach, but through a drastic shift in sound, I See You finds Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith illustrating the challenges of love and heartache through a vibrant new sonic palette. Influenced by the sunnier beats of In Colour, Smith's solo debut as Jamie xx, Madley Croft and Sim described the opportunity to look at an element of their sound from the outside in as a kind of “a-ha” moment that prompted the trio to broaden their scope. For as much as the xx's third album emphasizes their incisive introspection, especially when it comes to matters of the heart, an examination of otherness also pervades I See You.
It doesn't seem that long ago that The xx, three teenagers from South London, took over the world. Yet, amazingly, it was the end of the previous decade when the band's self-titled debut was released. Music (and the world, for that matter) had been through a lot in the Noughties, but by the end of the decade, both American Indie music (LCD Soundsystem) and British bass/dubstep (Burial) were established mainstays in the way popular music was being consumed.
Pregnant with potential meanings, the title of the xx’s immersive third album gradually reveals itself over the course of 10 new songs. It is not accusative – “I see you, stealing that guitar sound” – but more in keeping with the ongoing themes of this minimal, intimate band; more consolatory. “I see you”, this album says, “as you are.” Prefaced by a series of more outgoing tracks, I See You has been touted as the xx’s least insular album thus far.
Dance epiphanies have an established place in the indie pantheon, especially in its gothier recesses. Sometimes it’s good (Joy Division’s reinvention as New Order), sometimes it’s okay (The Cure, the Mondays) and sometimes we’re forced to admit we preferred it when everyone had impractical fringes and pretended to be upset on TOTP. Yes, we’re looking at you Honey’s Dead.
If there was ever such a thing as “accidental fame,” an earlier version of London-based pop group The xx might have served as a prime example. Best friends since attending classes together at the Elliott School in Putney, the trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith shared the intimacy of late-night conversations but lacked the onstage chemistry that typically translates to pop success. Madley Croft and Sim, co-fronting the group and playing guitar and bass, respectively, often played with their heads down and their gaze averted while Smith hid in the shadows behind his console.
Review Summary: A seesaw between past and future.It’s readily apparent from the buzzing two-step and brazen horns on opener “Dangerous” that the xx have hitched their wagon completely and finally to Jamie Smith’s star. After the muted, hesitant Coexist it was clear that the xx weren’t going to be able to coast off the haunting goth-pop of an unusually striking debut; that self-titled record was the sort of phenomenon that only comes around once in a great while, pop songs cloaked in mystery and hurt and driven by icy, crystalline beatmaking. Billboard is still imitating the xx in 2016, but the band itself struggled to do much more than create a pale imitation of the original on Coexist, vibrant album cover notwithstanding.
I See You, the third album by the xx, begins with a fanfare: five triumphant notes played by a small chorus of brass instruments. It is also a statement of intent, a signal that the band’s mission is reinvention. Here, the xx encounters the fear which comes from realizing your natural creative inclinations have hardened into a style and defined you.
The xx waste no time demonstrating they're a changed band on their third full-length, I See You; from the opening, filtered horn blasts of "Dangerous," it's clear they're done adhering to the minimalist pop-noir of their first two records. It's easy, even on first listen, to hear the influence of percussionist and producer Jamie xx (born Smith) on songs like "Dangerous," "Say Something Loving" and first single "On Hold. " Samples — referred to by The xx in interview as Jamie's "voice" — feature more prominently than ever, and percussion plays a far more central role, rendering some of these songs outright danceable.
For a band that often gets described as "minimal," the xx pack a massive amount of drama and emotion into their subtle music. The U.K. trio specialize in Zen restraint, blurring the line between indie guitar pop, R&B and dance music in stripped-down songs that are as sleek and eerie as they are weirdly inviting. It's the perfect stark backdrop for the way bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim and guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft build thick tension out of minute intimacy, doing more with awkward eye-contact, muttered confessions or mid-breakup negotiations than most bands do with a whole love affair.
“We opened windows and let some light in,” said Romy Madley Croft of the process recording I See You. The xx are turning a corner. Coming to terms with long-buried grief and reflecting on alcoholism across the album’s brief 39 minutes, the group have never sounded more confident. Their first two albums were minimal and intimate, but here they look outward – and onward.
Laura Coulson 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).
For The xx’s existence, co-leads Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim have shared the spotlight, no matter how smoky and dim that spotlight has been. The band’s third member, Jamie Smith, occupied the background, offering the textures, beats, and occasional steel drums as a canvas. But both live and on record, it’s the chemistry of Madley Croft and Sim that plays to the audience, their dueling melodies crafting what has been described as hipster makeout music, sensual songs for fragile hearts.
I See You, the xx’s first album in a little over four years, does not herald a new direction for a group that stumbled into one of the defining sounds of a generation. Instead, the trio finds a fairly happy medium between the quiet intimacy of their pioneering debut record and whatever else may lie in front of them. This was the riddle that Jamie xx, Oliver Sim, and Romy Madley Croft needed to solve.
Drama between musicians has fuelled many a great album. But compared to love quadrangles and corporately expensed cocaine benders that have become rock bio staples, London trio The xx’s issues – like their music – are not so ostentatious. In interviews, singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim and producer Jamie Smith have described periods of alienation, addiction and insecurity since they stopped touring in support of 2012’s Coexist.
The lead single with the prominent Hall & Oates sample. The music video set at an underage dance party. The publicity photos that suggest a sunny Netflix reboot of “Three’s Company.” Everything the xx has revealed in the run-up to its third studio album, “I See You,” seems to lead toward the idea that this once-gloomy electro-soul trio has lightened up.
They find a balance with the old xx though. Fragility and self-doubt are still themes. Indeed, the highlight is Romy’s pensive, vulnerable ballad ‘Performance’. “I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face,” she confesses, accompanied by a single, guitar and scurrying violins ….
The narrative surrounding I See You, The xx’s third album, tells a story of hurt, distance, excess and maturation. Rather than recoil into the shadows, the album sees the London three-piece fully exposed as they step out of the darkness and into the light, reflecting life’s lessons with a radical new sound that works to varying effect. An intrinsic relationship exists between the visual aesthetic The xx (and Jamie xx) present and the music that is found packaged within.