I want bands to evolve. I encourage groups to grow. I want an artist to pursue new sounds. I like following the career of a musical act not afraid to try different things for the sake of being creative. I enjoy hearing outfits pushing at the limits of its aesthetic in hopes of breaking down barriers and locating new inspiration.
So, suffice to say, I See You, the new record from The xx, met all those criteria and then some.
I’ve been a fan of this London trio from the very beginning. I’ve seen them three times in concert, and I might be a bigger fan of Jamie xx as an electronic music producer. I love the band’s indie-dance brand of minimalism, especially in how the songs willingly embrace negative space and willfully work silence into its arrangements.
But I’m also a sincere believer in the junior jinx, the lesser-known sibling of the sophomore slump.
My theory goes as follows:
- Band releases terrific first album.
- Band releases good follow-up that people give fawning reviews in hopes of not defying conventional wisdom about an act with critical acclaim.
- Band releases mediocre third record because it was never challenged by negative criticism.
Hence, when I got my hands on this album from the Young Turks label, I approached it with some trepidation.
- “Would it be as good as the self-titled debut?”
- “Would it approximate the growth and development of Coexist?”
- “Would this album be swallowed whole by the hip-hop influences heard on In Colour, the album Jamie xx released in 2015?”
- “Would it just suck?”
Lucky for you, dear reader, I have answers to those questions!
- It’s aesthetically better, though it doesn’t have the original gut-punch impact The xx did in 2009.
- It exceeds it by drawing from a host of newer influences, while never succumbing to them.
- I See You is basically an R&B record. Jamie reimagined some of the ideas from his solo record to better suit the pop feel of the band – especially the vocals of Romy and Oliver.
- It does not. Not in the slightest.
In my mind, the album contains two standout elements: a robust emphasis on lyricism and greater clarity to the vocal production. Not only do Oliver and Romy split time as the lead vocalist rather evenly, but you can hear them better and understand what they’re singing. No longer do you have to swim through a morass of reverb and echo to hear their cryptic lyrical musings. Instead, your ears are graced with ten songs pulsing with a romantic earnestness bordering on naive at times.
And they harmonize!
The trademark minimalism still rules the production values, even as the instrumentation is expanded ever-so-slightly. Though you can still hear the band’s classic guitar/bass/beats format on tracks like “A Violent Noise,” “Replica,” and “Performance,” synth pads, samples, and ‘80s inflected keyboard make their way into the mix throughout the album. You can hear this expanded palette most clearly on songs like “Dangerous,” “Say Something Loving,” “On Hold,” and “I Dare You,” as Romy’s icy post-punk guitar takes on a support role, while an ‘80s dark-pop love song feel almost takes over.
Think of it this way: I See You is the direct inverse of Starboy, which The Weeknd released in September 2016.
Whereas that latter record literally screams “SEX” at every possible juncture – complete with arrangements and musical ideas that stand firmly in the tradition of Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Prince – The xx opt for nuance and introspection, while still creating what might be the band’s sexiest album. These songs never shy away from expressing their feelings to the lost lover who serves as the vocal point of the lyrics, but they want to achieve emotional and psychological fulfillment before giving into carnal desires.
I See You is a fantastic record in its concision and ability to give the singers, production, and instrumentation plenty of room to breathe.
It’s not aping minimalism for the sake of looking or being cool. Instead, it take those ideas from the first two albums, unpacks them, examines them with new tools and concepts, and then builds something new out of them.
Is I See You an accessible record that plays with pop sensibilities in ways The xx never attempted in the past? Absolutely. But don’t take that a sign the band has watered down its sound for wider acclaim. Take it as proof that a band can grow by pushing its ideas into new and interesting directions, all without getting lost or falling off a cliff.
Recommended for: Jilter lovers; quiet evenings alone; people who know better than to call, text, DM, or Facebook stalk their ex; and electronic music fans who hate the thought of going to a rave.