Following a five-year absence, the xx have returned with some of their strongest, loveliest and most sophisticated work yet in I See You. The record packs a remarkable level of emotional drama into its 38 minutes, with fearless producer Jamie xx (whose terrific 2015 coming-out party In Colour hinted at a uniquely eclectic shift in sound), guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wearing their stadium aspirations proudly on their sleeves.
The Londonite four-piece-turned-trio cut a major swath in the alternative universe with their 2009 debut xx, a stark, skeletal, mesmerizing record that stripped indie dance-pop down to its most basic elements. The follow-up, 2012’s Coexist, saw the band take an even more minimalistic approach to songcraft, with some tracks reserved to only ringing, shoegazy guitar and quavering vocals. With I See You, they expand their creative palates to create a fascinating, dreamy meld of house, post-punk and shoegaze.
It’s clear the band is doing things differently this time around, and they make a point of telling you as much from the start of the opening track. “Dangerous” begins with grandiose horn noises before breaking into a dancefloor-ready drum-bass beat. The beat thumps on infectiously as Croft and Sim croon about entering and navigating a love affair with reckless abandon: “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/Then I won’t say goodbye.”
Working with regular collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie makes ample use of his newly-refined prowess as an electronic producer on this record. He plays a pivotal role in the band’s new musical direction, his lush, intoxicating sonic textures form an ideal foundation for the aching sentiments of his bandmates. The arrangements are warmer and more complex, yet they retain the chilly shimmer of the group’s previous work. The ringing, U2-esque guitar is still very much present, but this time it’s buttressed by the sounds of organ, horns, strings (including avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson on viola), and – in a notable first for the group – the prominent use of vocal samples. The samples aren’t exactly obscure (soft-rockers Alessi Brothers on the vaguely dubstep “Say Something Loving,” Trio Mediæval on the divinely hypnotic two-become-one anthem “Lips”), but they’re expertly woven into the record’s motif and elevate the meanings of the songs themselves instead of functioning as mere ornaments.
As songwriters and as vocalists, Sim and Croft have never sounded stronger or more self-assured than on I See You; Croft, in particular, seems to drift out of her comfort zone, displaying a more dynamic side of her reserved, breathy voice. The duo have mastered the art of exuding passion in their vocals and words while still maintaining a sort of detached coolness. They often have admitted in interviews to singing “over” each other instead of “to” one another – a dynamic that serves the group and their music well as their lyrics keep a delicate balance between desire for human connection and observing connection from a distance with a cold exactness. “It’s so overwhelming/The thrill of affection feels so unfamiliar,” they sigh on “Say Something Loving”; “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”
This lyrical focus – love, intimacy and youth as a disjointed, alien experience – continues throughout the album. “A Violent Noise” uses a distinctly club beat, albeit far darker and more subdued, to evoke the experience of young clubgoers and the abstract numbness and confusion youth and clubgoing constantly entail – the feeling of being alone on a crowded dancefloor. “With every kiss from a friend/with everything I pretend not to feel,” Sim sings. “Am I too high? Am I too proud?/Is the music too loud for me to hear?” On “Replica,” somber, airy guitar and church organ-like chords flutter over thumping bass as the two contemplate the struggle to avoid imitating the mistakes of the preceding generation: “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat…Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”
Emphatic lead single “On Hold” presents an interesting contradiction. It’s one of the brightest, most upbeat songs the xx have ever crafted, packed with soaring synth notes and crackling breakbeats, yet its lyrics overflow with isolation and a fruitless quest for understanding, complete with astronomical imagery (“The stars and the charts and the cards make sense/Only when we want them to/When I lie awake staring in to space/I see a different view…Now you’ve found a new star to orbit…When and where did we go cold?”) A chopped-up, garbled sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” transforms into a Tower of Babel, enhancing the supreme bewilderment and disorientation. Altogether, the track is a gorgeously subdued statement that ranks among the group’s best.
The devastating “Performance,” which bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the band’s previous work of anything found on I See You, is another standout moment. Here, Croft’s voice levitates over a barebones guitar/bass backdrop and swelling, brutish orchestration courtesy of Paul Frith and the Iskra String Quartet as she all-too-appropriately connects the concealing of emotion to a stage act (“If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say…I do it all so you won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”). The song touches upon a crucial point; after all, what is love in our modern world – indeed, what is the very art of music – if not the adoption of personae, the projection of feeling – an elaborately staged performance? Croft’s words take on an even greater poignancy when, ultimately, the illusion becomes reality as she and her lover drift further apart (“The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me”).
It’s the closing track, “Test Me,” however, that drives the whole thing home. The song begins as a slow, unadorned dirge with minimal percussion but gathers energy in its final minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of wailing synths, vocals and drums to form a hauntingly vivid soundscape. Add Croft’s and Sim’s entreats for their respective lovers to “take it out on me,” and it’s an incredibly heartbreaking note on which to end this record. But heartbreak is what the xx do best, and here they manage to find new and intriguing ways to express it.
I See You is a beautiful and magnificently realized work that highlights the xx’s individual and collective strengths while successfully challenging them to explore uncharted territory. If you’re still in need of proof of their relevance and vitality in an age when lackluster, play-it-safe “alternative” music chokes the airwaves, this is the record to do it. This group is a force of extraordinary gravitas and potency, and it’s sure to be thrilling to watch what they do next. (8.4/10)