I See You
Seemingly out of nowhere, London band The xx burst onto the scene in 2009 with a stone cold classic in their debut album XX. The album garnered universal critical acclaim and went on to win the 2010 Mercury Prize. Their sparse, minimal sound was replicated far and wide and their influence can still be seen today in bands such as London Grammar and all over the charts, most notably in Rihanna and Drake.
For their 2013 follow up, Coexist, the band decided to take their already minimal sound and strip it back even further to the point of skeletal. While their second record was not without its charms – ‘Angels’ was worth the price of the album alone – the band started to look like they were in danger of losing their way somewhat.
Since then, chief beat-maker and producer Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx, went on to release his excellent debut solo album, the Mercury Prize-nominated In Colour, in 2015. This and the subsequent tour seems to have rejuvenated him. His fingerprints are all over the trio’s third album, I See You, in a welcome change of direction.
Within the first ten seconds, it becomes immediately apparent that this is going to be a livelier affair than its predecessor. The brash horns and pounding house beats of opener ‘Dangerous’ are a sign of things to come. As usual with the xx, vocal duties are regularly swapped throughout between guitarist Romy Madeley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim.
The radio-friendly ‘Say Something Loving’ is probably the poppiest track the band has recorded. Sampling the Alessi Brothers ‘Do You Feel It?’, this upbeat duet follows two lovers who are starting to grow further in love with each other but the girl hasn’t had much luck with relationships in the past and is still uneasy about how it’s progressing, “You say something loving, Without hesitation it hits me, hits me, It feels so unfamiliar.”
‘Lips’ is another love song with a calming, almost tropical vibes. The album centrepiece, however, is ‘A Violent Noise’ which deals with Oliver’s struggles with alcoholism (“You’ve been staying out late, Trying your best to escape / I hope you find what you’re looking for”). Starting off slowly, the song builds up to a euphoric climax each time for the chorus. It’s real punch-the-air, anthemic stuff and is absolutely wonderful. Smith shows real restraint here in not turning it into an absolute banger but this is screaming for a remix with the handbrake let off.
The middle section of the album sees a bit of a lull and a real drop in tempo. Croft takes on sole vocal duties on ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’. The former documents a woman’s performance in disguising her unhappiness in a relationship. The somber ‘Brave For You’ is a deeply personal song directed to her deceased parents, cataloging her attempt to live as full a life as possible – “So I will be brave for you, Stand on a stage for you / Do the things that I’m afraid to do, I know you want me to”.
The pace picks up again markedly with the fantastic, bouncy lead single, the Hall & Oates-sampling ‘On Hold’, which documents the end of a relationship and the desire to identify where it all went wrong. The dreamy ‘I Dare You’ is another love song coming from a different angle and tells the story of two people’s infatuation with each other at the beginning of a relationship.
While never scaling the dizzying heights of their debut, this is still an extremely welcome return to form for the band and, even with the new change in direction, this is still unmistakably the sound of The xx. Long may that continue.