Album Review: I See You - The xx
By Asher Stephens
It’s been over four years since The xx’s solid but unprogressive last effort, Coexist (2012), during which time the band’s main producer and backbone, Jamie xx, released a stunning solo album, In Colour (2015), on which both Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft feature heavily and in which he was able to exhibit a totally different style than we’re used to hearing from the band. It is immediately apparent that I See You represents a change for the xx in terms of their sound - this album on the whole is much more heavily produced and less stripped down – with the influence of In Colour clear.
Art Direction by Phil Lee. The commercial release of this album comes in the form of a debossed mirrored jacket, which (we think) was intentionally designed to blur the line between producer and receiver; this record is as much about you as it is them. That, or they just fancied something incredibly minimalist and different. Either way, we really dig the design
Techniques such as sampling, which we’re not typically accustomed to hearing from the xx, are used frequently. The Alessi Brothers are sampled for example, on “Say Something Loving” with the desperate lyric – “Before it slips away” – reverberating as Sim and Madley Croft sing about the need to express affection in a relationship. Sim’s voice isn’t always the strongest: “A Violent Noise”, on which he is the main vocalist, is one of the weaker efforts on the record, but he comes into his own here. Also notable on this track is its positivity, a trait that the band has been keen to express on their important third album; they have moved away from the limitations held upon them on their first two albums and scrapped that minimalistic sound for something more expansive and celebratory. Indeed, this sense of joy is clear on the opener with the band announcing their return amidst triumphant horns with Sim and Madley Croft exchanging vocals on an upbeat, bassline led track in the form of “Dangerous”.
Art director Phil Lee posted this photo on Instagram of a mirrored promotional poster for the new record at London's Piccadilly Circus tube station.
Along with Jamie xx, longtime collaborator Rodaidh McDonald and record label Young Turks produced the album and similarities can be drawn with recent releases of Sampha, who has also worked with the aforementioned parties, on “Lips” in particular where light drums are accompanied by piercing synths amongst evocative vocals and brilliant guitar work from Madley Croft. It’s yet another example of the xx moving in a new direction and it’s a joy to behold.
Conceptually, however, the band stick largely to what they know and do best by writing about love and relationships – “I’ve been a romantic for so long / All I’ve ever had is love songs”. Madley Croft sings on the anthemic “I Dare You” but again this new positive stance undertaken by the band is evident. Where in previous albums the outlook may have been cynical I See You feels considerably more optimistic. Even on the beautifully honest track “Brave For You”, on which Madley Croft sings to her deceased parents, the spin is a positive one as she references venturing out of her comfort zone inspired by the backing of her parents – “When things don’t make sense/I have courage/Because of you” - Lyrically the xx aren’t the most complex but they never fail to have a profound affect upon their audience nonetheless.
“Performance” is perhaps the one track in which the positivity is suspended somewhat as Madley Croft sings hauntingly over arpeggio guitar, struggling to keep up appearances in the face of those around her – “If I dance like I’m on stage/Will you see I seem out of place”. Sim, who had struggled with alcoholism until recently, and Madley Croft sing about the troubles they’ve had with their own relationship as lifelong friends on the piano-led closing track “Test Me”, whereby the latter manages to express through songwriting feelings she would otherwise have perhaps been unable to convey. It feels relieving on her part and it’s intriguing to hear.
It seems the xx have discovered themselves over the past four years and their willingness to express their newfound characters has resulted in a fascinatingly revealing album. That distinctive, minimalistic sound, which has made the band one of the most influential artists in recent years, paving the way for the likes of fellow Mercury Prize winner James Blake to rise to prominence, has been built upon rather than discarded and the results, for the most part, are magnificent. It’s less groundbreaking than their classic debut but I See You marks a successful return for the xx and proves they have many more strings to their bow than previously exhibited. One of music’s most wonderfully predictable bands has suddenly become quite the opposite. The xx are back, and more exciting than ever.