The xx is known for their minimalistic compositions and hushed, longing whispers, but their latest record, I See You, is full of emotion and vibrancy that never wastes a beat or breath.
In 2009, the trio released their self-titled debut album, xx, to widespread acclaim — something that the band itself didn’t even expect. It’s a thoughtful reflection on the members’ younger years, but their follow-up 2012 album, Coexist, was more of the same of their first album but with seemingly less of its impact; good but nothing new. With I See You, the band stays true to their roots. Through Jamie xx’s dazzling production, guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft and bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim’s same soft, subtle vocals explore and embrace a more expansive sound. They walk the line between optimism and sorrow, yet are still more hopeful than ever before.
The opening track, “Dangerous,” blares at the listener with a deafening horn before transitioning into a fast-paced, smooth groove. It’s a song that begs to be played on full volume and danced to endlessly. Exuberant, club-friendly songs like this introduce The xx to uncharted territories. But for Jamie xx, creator of the critically acclaimed 2015 LP, In Colour, and the band’s producer, energetic beats are nothing new. The band’s previous arrangements, limited to what they could perform live, have been replaced by adventurous samplings characteristic of Jamie’s solo tunes. In the track, “Say Something Loving,” Jamie samples the Alessi Brothers’ song “Do You Feel It?” Instead of overshadowing the singers’ vocals, he adds to them by providing a sense of urgency with the Brothers’ line “Before it slips away” echoing intermittently in the background.
On the single, “On Hold,” Sim and Madley Croft utilize their trademark vocal interplay while discussing the realization that some things are not meant to be. “I can’t hold on to an empty space,” Sim sings about someone slipping away from him. The song is bittersweet and longing, and the listener can’t help but feel like they’re intruding on a private conversation between the two singers. Despite the melancholy lyrics, Jamie xx colors the song with synths, frenetic drums and a sampling from Hall and Oates track, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”
But the trio haven’t completely devoted themselves to danceable, pop songs. On “Performance,” Madley Croft’s sings about the burden of reality and having to develop a false persona because of it. “Brave for You” leaves Madley Croft at her most vulnerable: as she acknowledges the loss of her parents in a song for the first time. “So I will be brave for you/Stand on a stage for you/Do the things that I’m afraid to do,” she croons, voice hushed and quivering with emotion. It’s reminiscent of the stripped down tracks found on their first two albums.
Even Sim lays himself bare on the song, “Replica.” During the group’s hiatus, Sim struggled with alcoholism, and the song explores his resistance to his own self-destruction. The album’s final track, “Test Me,” refers again to Sim’s alcoholism only this time from Madley Croft. Her lyrics are raw and harsh, but it’s a much needed emotional catharsis for the band, emphasizing both their highs and lows.
On I See You, The xx accomplishes what many artists are unable to do successfully — transition into a richer sound without losing sight of who they are. It’s an outlet for the band’s feelings: raw, real yet restrained, showcasing their ability to deliver even the softest murmur into the harshest impact.