Release Date – 13th January 2017
After making waves with their Mercury-prize-winning debut album ‘xx’ and then struggling to stay afloat with the sparse and arid ‘Coexist’, The xx return with a more expansive sound that sees them play with a new, Jamie xx ridden sonic pallet, which delivers both triumphant moments and plodding duds.
The xx’s debut album, the sleeper-hit-turned-classic ‘xx’, cemented the group as indie dream pop darlings. Their (then) unique and minimalist sound spawned countless imitations (see: London Grammar) and almost universal critical acclaim. Sophomore album ‘Coexist’ built on this established sound and filled it out with long, sparse sections and an increased focus on production from Jamie xx, but failed to live up to the enormous (if delayed) success of the original, partly because the once-unique sound became something to be expected and lacked the revelatory factor the band’s debut possessed. It is a constant predicament bands face with a third album; do they keep hold of the sound they have refined and championed for two albums that people come to expect or do they branch out and try new, daring sounds? There’s no real right answer (unless you are Mumford and Sons, in which case the answer is burn all copies of Wilder Mind and call it a day) as each path has its own pitfalls and the difficult third album will likely garner criticism for whichever choice is made. It’s fair to say that I See You chooses the exploratory, expansive option.
‘a comfortable sweet spot that marries beautiful, haunting vocals, melodic guitars and shuffling production’
Dangerous was not the opener to be expected from I See You: five short, shrill horn bursts announce the beginning of the album, a defiant and immediate sign that the xx have changed. Oliver Sim’s once-gothic vocals that once haunted the xx and have a confidence not explored in previous albums; he enters the fray over a chugging progressive bassline, only to be harmonised with the equally assured vocals of Romy Croft, both vocalists giving their most consistent and controlled performances to date. Coupled with the blaring horns and a shuffling two-step garage beat (courtesy of Jamie xx), it is immediately apparent that the xx are a more confident, daring version of themselves. Dangerous is a dance song, but it is still unmistakably an xx song. Whilst the immediate reaction to Dangerous is that Jamie xx’s successful debut album has infected I See You, it more appropriately reveals how integral the xx’s tone and space play are to In Colour rather than vice versa. The more abrasive production continues throughout I See You, notably in the shredding, distorted build of A Violent Noise, although never quite as successfully as Dangerous. Say Something Loving, a song built around a swirly synth pad not dissimilar to Caribou’s Second Chance, is a far subtler but still welcomed exploration of an expansive sound. Despite peppering in a sample from the Alessi Brothers’ ‘Do You Feel It’ and focusing on a more beat-based structure, Say Something Loving still sees the xx play with empty space, melodic basslines and harmonising vocals: three stylistic attributes at the forefront of every xx song.
If Dangerous and Say Something Loving serve as examples of how the xx can expand their sound with synth-led Jamie XX production, there are certainly moments on I See You that could be called missteps. The future-R&B sound of Lips sounds like a clunky, downtempo version of Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back (Lick It)’ and would easily fit in as background music to a retail outlet. Replica, whilst utilising that Jamie XX signature steel drum synth swathe, almost bursts with a cheesiness previously reserved for chart-topping dance vocalists. It’s hard to imagine the song free from the context of being sung by an overexcited and hyperactive dance group in the ‘sad section’ of their festival headline slot at T4 On The Beach. (Note: I have no idea whether T4 still exists- probably not -but it’s hard not to imagine a Rudimental type feign emotion over the sheer corniness of the chanted vocal line ‘Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?’) I Dare You continues this trend of lacklustre catharsis with even more chanted vocals, this time a simple ‘Oooooohhhhh oooh ohhhh’ that blends into a haze of fuzzy nothingness. On Hold is a flat Hall and Oats sample-based song riddled with dull 909 toms; it briefly offers a glimmer of hope with the addition of a bassline but even that quickly vanishes from the fray, removing both the subtleties and nuances of prior xx albums and gaining a stuttering instrumental that never really builds, delivers, or excites, no matter how much it teases. Performance, a song that is the closest sonically to their debut and sophomore albums, is the weakest song from I See You. Romy’s vocals are transcendent and more confident than ever, but they cannot save the dull and ponderous effort that lags behind the rest of the album. Indeed, it is certainly significant that the least interesting song on the album is the most akin to their original sound.
I See You offers a lot of promise. It proves, with aplomb, that the xx are more than capable of changing their sound in a manner that doesn’t alter their signature sonic aesthetic. What initially seems like a rapid departure of sound to a more In Colour palette actually asserts how much of the xx is intrinsic to Jamie xx’s electronic tone. There is a plethora of missteps that delve into plodding corniness, but what is perhaps most telling is the confidence in which Romy, Oliver and Jamie have chosen their new direction. I See You feels like a united effort; one in which every member was comfortable and excited to explore new paths and, as such, does not alter their sound for the sake of a third album. The complete album feels like a true amalgamation between the three, a comfortable sweet spot that marries beautiful, haunting vocals, melodic guitars and shuffling production. I See You offers promise of a fuller, more encompassing album; one that retains and develops the core xx sound- but nevertheless fails to stretch out such teased potential into a whole, consistent album.
Image: Young Turks