It’s been 5 years since minimalist indietronica collective, The xx released their fairly cautious sophomore album 2012’s ‘Coexist’. ‘Coexist’ had its moments, with tracks like ‘Angels’ subtly infiltrating the UK singles charts, however it was the sound of a band frustrated with their own sound and image. It was a case of how to develop, where would the trio progress from this point? A lot’s happened in 5 years. Jamie Smith’s astounding ventures as a solo-artist, Jamie xx, were met with elation. Smith’s efforts materialized in his acclaimed 2015 debut, ‘In Colour’, experimenting with trip-hop influenced electronica, and dark, atmospheric garage beats. It’s possible this was the nudge The xx needed to move on to something new and exciting. This “something”, has unfolded as the band’s striking third album, ‘I See You’, released yesterday (13/1) on their Young Turks label.
Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Smith had been working tentatively on the record since early 2014, and although ‘I See You’ retains the controlled, atmospheric allure the trio worked so well on their previous 2 albums, it presents a more “positive, open and expansive” sound, no doubt influenced by Jamie’s newfound production duties.
No longer bound to his decks at the back of the stage, Smith’s dubby electronics take pride of place on ‘I See You’, transforming nocturnal subtlety into infectious dancehall hooks. ‘Dangerous’ is peppered with a fanfare of sharp horn blasts, driven by a bounding bassline, whilst glitchy synth effects lay down a far more danceable beat than anything the trio have produced before. It’s a certain sign of what’s to come. Likewise, the first track lifted from the album, the sample-rich ‘On Hold’ is a graceful collision of old and new. The use of a jittery Hall & Oates sample is a little old school disco, but it’s all part of the act.
Vocally, ‘I See You’ is virtually flawless. Romy, once awkward and reluctant dives into her newfound role, delivering her lyrics with quietly potent emotion, utilizing those teenage feelings of anxiety, naivety and fear that fell upon a band thrust into the spotlight whether they liked it or not. The reverberating drum beats and isolated guitar of ‘Brave For You’ see her take on vocal duties single-handedly, determined to make a loved one proud – “I will be brave for you, stand on a stage for you, do the things that I’m afraid to do”.
Her partner-in-crime, Oli is equally confident. Sim’s rich, baritone-style vocals compliment Romy’s delicately. ‘Say Something Loving’ is an overlooked statement on love and friendship that puts the duo’s unique vocal relationship to the fore, delivering the sentimental chorus in unison over Jamie’s bubbling electronica. If you weren’t aware, you could easily mistake their closeness as something more, however Romy’s recent engagement would say otherwise. ‘Performance’ is a throwback to the self-searching themes explored on their 2009 debut, the sheer terror that befell two introverts (Croft and Sim) who had dabbled in bedroom-pop, but were now striding forward at an uncomfortable pace. The track wields silence as an instrument, interspersing it with Romy’s stripped-back guitar, and little else. It’s typical The xx.
Whilst ‘I See You’s vocal prowess is a serious progression, it doesn’t distract from Smith’s input, felt heavily on the tropical synth-beat of ‘Lips’, which easily matches the feverish jungle-pop of Glass Animals debut, 2014’s ‘Zaba’ (not to mention Jamie’s fondness for a steel pan sample). The key element here, is the so called “dance-factor”; whilst you were unlikely to hear the likes of ‘Intro’ or ‘Crystalised’ in a nightclub, ‘I See You’ is dotted with potential floor fillers. ‘A Violent Noise’ masquerades as a tropical house track, echoing with four-to-the-floor beats that escalate and recede fiendishly. It’s here that you consider if in places, the album has given too much elbow room to Jamie’s electronics, which overwhelm the duo’s struggling vocals, it’s something to think about. At other times, he pulls it off with explosive effect, none so much as on ‘I Dare You’. ‘I See You’s penultimate track is a standout moment. It’s in-your-face, in a good way, pulsating with weighty beats that inflate the joyous chorus to superb new heights. It’s got “summer anthem” written all over it.
If you travelled back to the heady days of 2009, where people still used ITunes without facing sheer embarrassment, and the era of “landfill indie” was in full-swing, it would be difficult to imagine that this breakthrough 3-piece from London, who produced moody and minimalist indie-pop could produce a record as hook-heavy and radio-ready as ‘I See You’. Now don’t get me wrong, this record still shares the seamless nature of self-titled; it’s polished, sleek and sexy, but for wholly different reasons. The production is unparalleled, and the vocals superior, even though the occasional track may appear somewhat limp. ‘I See You’ is rich, textured and demonstrates the capability of all 3 of its participants to operate on different standings, but as a unit. When it all comes together, it’s something quite spectacular…
The trio are jetting off on a lengthy world tour to promote ‘I See You’, but not without making time for a brief run of UK arena dates, with a staggering 7, yes that’s 7 nights at London’s O2 Academy Brixton! Whilst the majority of tickets for these shows have sold out, there are still a number left for the Cardiff and Nottingham dates. I’ve left details of the full tour below. Likewise, listen to ‘I See You’ on Spotify below, or alternatively find it on other streaming services.
The xx, March 2017 tour dates:
4th March, Nottingham, Motorpoint Arena
5th & 6th March, Manchester, O2 Apollo (All dates sold out)
8th-15th March, London, O2 Academy Brixton (All dates sold out)
17th March, Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena
Words by Joe Bulger
Featured image courtesy of Alasdair Mclellan for Entertainment Weekly