DANIEL JACOBSON delves into The xx’s I See You, a significant departure from the band’s previous minimalist and lo-fi releases.
A blank, silver, reflective screen; a distinctive ‘X’ symbol; three ominous words: ‘I See You’.
London-based electronic pop outfit The xx burst onto the indie music scene in 2009, with their critically acclaimed debut record xx. This album paved the way for a new wave of thought-provoking and challenging UK-based indie rock, both from a production standpoint and on a lyrical level. Recent albums like Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave and Wild Beasts’ Two Dancers, or James Blake’s self-titled debut, have challenged preconceptions on how albums should be created, who they should be created by, and what is needed to create them. But these albums are not easy. They require time, thought: sometimes multiple, often painful listens. The xx are no exception. This is what is both so confusing and so interesting about them.
For me, the challenge posed by The xx is their minimalism. Their obsession with tiny details made it difficult for The xx to create any depth in their sound. As a result, despite the delicate nature of their debut album, it felt raw. The first single ‘Crystalised’ is an example of this: a bass-less, percussion-less juxtaposition of two guitars, each playing separate and intertwining melodies. This sound is complemented by the monotony of the vocal performances: the addition of emotion may have detracted from the intricacy of the record. Many would describe this sound as ‘slick and sexy’; to me it felt heartless, even cold.
I See You is their first album since Coexist in 2012. Jamie xx’s 2015 solo debut In Colour is an album packed with creativity, vibrancy, and acrobatic performances (such as those of Popcaan and Young Thug on ‘Good Times’). This has fed into the style of their new release: I See You turns towards a sound that retains the ‘crystallised’ focus of past releases, but with an added layer of guts. It is probably their best album to date.
The opener, ‘Dangerous’, begins with a triumphant burst of trumpets, a daring departure from their previous lo-fi and introverted releases. The funky, foot-tapping nature of this track resembles the sounds of In Colour rather than any previous xx release. Bolder and more creative production explodes sporadically throughout the album. The first single ‘On Hold’ consists of samples that are not a far cry from the Made In Chelsea samples sprinkled throughout In Colour.
Owing to their new appreciation for a deeper and more atmospheric sound, tracks like ‘On Hold’ possess a structure which relies heavily on sonic builds: a dynamic which seemed impossible to achieve on xx. This is also present on some of the slower tracks, namely ‘Replica’ and ‘Brave For You’ – my two favourite songs on this record. Here, The xx are able to create exhilarating, spacious ballads via the pairing of a keyboard with lonely guitar riffs. ‘Brave For You’, in particular, makes use of some unusual bass drum production, making the song sound almost like a track from Daughter, or London Grammar.
The weaker points on the album are the tracks in which The xx return to the sound of their previous album. These tracks, namely ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Performance’ – clustered around the first half of the record – generate a vacuous feeling that is designed to contrast with the vocals, creating a sense of emptiness. ‘Test Me’, which closes the album, simply drones and drags the album to its conclusion. The xx do best when their music looks forward; harking back to their previous sound provides a lacklustre finish to an otherwise exciting, often innovative album.
Successful artists should never be criticised simply due to their popularity. But, since xx, whilst The xx’s minimalistic sound does not appeal to me, I can appreciate what it is that makes them so universally popular. The naked coldness of their music is endlessly seductive, extended by the richness and depth of this new record. I See You is a definite step forward in the band’s sonic development. It has been a long time coming – given Jamie xx’s flirtations with Atlanta rappers and Gil Scott-Heron remixes – but with this new-found interest and confidence in experimentation, The xx are clearly one band whose creations are only going to grow in intrigue.