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The xx’s self-titled debut remains one of the great sleeper hits of the last decade. No one—including, it’s fair to say, the xx themselves—expected that their murmuring blend of turn-of-the-millennium R&B and C86 indie pop would go on to sell a million copies and become hugely influential. But from the beginning, the London trio had a lot going for them. In Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, they had two songwriters conversant in the primal language of heartbreak and loss, whose vocals, though limited, conveyed anguish. Madley Croft’s guitar lines did a great deal with very little, the single notes carving deep feeling out of broad subjects. And producer and programmer Jamie xx, with his unerring ability to find rhythms that fit with emotions, made sure each tune got its perfect beat.
Coexist from 2012 was a decent re-statement of the debut’s animating ideas, but the prevailing story of the xx in the years since that debut has been the rise of Jamie xx. The most exciting music coming out of their camp—from one-off singles like “Far Nearer” and “All Under One Roof Raving” to his 2015 breakthrough In Colour—belonged to him. The xx was all about working within limitations, with a prescribed set of sounds and themes; Jamie xx’s solo music was built around samples, and was, accordingly, wide open, bound only by his adventurous ear. I See You, the third album by the xx, sounds like an attempt to incorporate everyone’s talents into a new version of their sound, one true to their roots but richer and more varied.
On their first two albums, the xx limited their arrangements so that the songs could be performed live. But here, Jamie xx’s samples form the backbone of several songs, allowing them to move into territory that would be impossible with a guitar/bass/programmed-percussion set up. An early single, “On Hold,” even cops a mangled hook from a Hall and Oates song. It’s a quintessential Jamie xx sample, easily recognizable the moment you hear it but taking a moment to place, allowing your memory to fill in the blanks as the song moves and changes around it. Heard on its own late last year, “On Hold” sounded slightly forced, but it makes perfect sense as a brighter, poppier part of a record that takes the essential xx subject of uncertain love to near-concept album status.
As much as the expansive production helps move things forward, this is in many ways Madley Croft and Sim’s album. Both have grown as vocalists. Neither has tremendous range or depth, but they’re clever and resourceful singers, able to shape meaning through subtle inflections and shifts in phrasing. Sim’s approach is more face-to-face and straightforward—he seems like he’s holding up his end of a conversation—while Madley Croft seems like she’s talking to a mirror, trying to steel herself to share her feelings with the world. The delivery of every line is considered, as the pair tug at the edges of lines to get the expression just right. “I just don’t re-mem-ber,” Sim sings, drawing out the final syllable in “Say Something Loving,” imparting an additional touch of longing without overreaching; “Here come my insecurities/I almost expect you to leave,” Madley Croft sings in the same song, nearly summing up the record’s lyrical concerns in a single line.
The defining characteristics of these voices are helplessness, fear, and hurt; the xx sound quite far from the indie pop of their debut stylistically, but they retain their connection to that world because they still traffic in shy introspection and vulnerability. For the narrators of these songs, there’s a constant war between how the world sees them and how they feel inside, and self-love isn’t part of the equation. On “Performance,” Madley Croft sings about keeping up appearances, giving the illusion that everything is OK when she’s dying inside. “Brave for You” is a tribute to her deceased parents, but it could be about anyone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself. All the existential wrestling—interior vs. exterior, the promises and betrayals—happens in the closest of spaces; “My name on your lips/Your air in my lungs/Drowned in oxygen,” sings Madley Croft on “Lips,” sketching out just how close and intimate this world is.
“Performance” and “Brave for You” both feel like classic xx songs—they are naked and spare, with hints of strings and Madley Croft’s guitar and a whole lot of silence. About a third of the album works with stripped-down, open arrangements like this, while others make judicious use of samples and layers of synths and sequencers. “Dangerous” opens the album with a startling blast of a horns that returns on the chorus as a counterpoint melody. “A Violent Noise” has a winding and surging cluster of arpeggiating notes that explode at all the right moments—something of a Jamie xx trademark—and the production brilliantly traces the emotional arc of the song.
As an album, I See You has the eerily seamless wholeness of the self-titled debut, a smooth and polished object with no visible edges. If it came apart, you would almost certainly never be able to put it back together again. As such, each individual song seems most realized in the context of the album, as it builds on or tweaks or develops what came before and hints at something to come, and the closing “Test Me” ties it altogether. The song’s production is breathtaking, one of Jamie xx’s masterpieces, all Eno-like suggestion, and the words are both simple and move the record’s narrative forward. “Test me,” both Madley Croft and Sim sing, “see if I break,” suggesting an unspoken strength that might have been there all along.
|A2||Say Something Loving|
|A4||A Violent Noise|
|B2||Brave For You|
|B4||I Dare You|