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It seemed like every big, buzz act in music dropped an album in 2016. Every big, buzz act, that is, except The xx. The Brits’ third outing, I See You, was delayed. It’s now 2017’s first major release. But will the adventurous I See You make those ‘Best of 2017’ lists in December?
The xx – its core members the co-lead vocalist/instrumentalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, plus producer Jamie “xx” Smith – came across as a phantom The Kills, with the late-night urban tension of Tricky’s trip-hop, on 2009’s debut xx. Sim and Croft sang of desire, despair and diffidence. That album trumped the Mercury Prize. Yet The xx maintained that their compelling minimalism was a manifestation of inexperience. With 2012’s Coexist, they’d be swept up in post-dubstep mania, Smith subtly introducing his DJ influences on songs like ‘Chained’. Today The xx have myriad copyists – most obviously London Grammar. However, The xx’s aesthetics even seeped into Frank Ocean’s Blond, with its subliminal indie-electro and fractured narratives. The avant-soul equivalent of a Tennessee Williams “memory play”, Blond was The xx’s own fave 2016 album. But, while Ocean has grown more introverted, The xx are opening up.
I See You, concise with 10 songs, finds The xx transcending what they worried was becoming a formula, post-Coexist. Cutting that follow-up proved stressful, the trio striving to reproduce their sound. Limitations had crystallised into “rules”. And so, with I See You, The xx not only press ‘reset’, but also liberate themselves. The band escaped London, recording in such random locales as Marfa in Texas’ prairies. Smith recruited Rodaidh McDonald, XL’s in-house studio legend, as co-producer.
In many ways, I See You is a companion to Smith’s clubby 2015 side-project In Colour – on which, incidentally, The xx singers prominently cameo-ed. Croft graced ‘Loud Places’ – with Belinda Carlisle’sone-timee songwriter Rick Nowels credited. In fact, the albums were partly made concurrently.
I See You is more layered, uptempo and… tropical, Smith enamoured of calypso, carnival and bashment music. There are pop songs. The gorgeous lead single ‘On Hold’, exposing a malfunctioning romance, is for cry-dancing – Smith manipulating an archly transgressive sample (!) of Hall & Oates’ 80s track ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ as Sim struts some indie-disco bass. The xx could be the sophisticate’s Major Lazer. Both Sim and Croft sound increasingly confident, their voices to the fore. Sim especially has never sung so soulfully. Indeed, The xx are… sanguine. (Croft just announced her engagement to longtime designer GF Hannah Marshall.) The tropwave opener ‘Dangerous’, with a gust of Afro horns and skippy UK garage beats, extols risk-taking. The equatorial ‘Lips’ is The xx’s most sultry, and sexy, song – AlunaGeorge should be jel.
Still, this being The xx, old agonies linger. All is not what it appears with I See You – which plucks its equivocal title from The Velvet Underground’s Nico-featuring ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. Lyrically, the album verges on the meta, exploring the beginnings, endings and flux of relationships with the accompanying rushes and fears. ‘Say Something Loving’ is about loneliness, Sim crooning, “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection.” ‘A Violent Noise’ alludes to his recently discussed struggles with social anxiety and alcohol dependency. This partier has a panic attack about partying on a party record – with delirious Euro-trance synths. A solo Croft, too, expresses anguish on the stark ballad ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’ – the latter a sad declaration of resilience after losing her parents prematurely.
The torrid closer ‘Test Me’ reveals these besties’ discord amid the pressures of success and Smith’s DJ commitments. ‘Test Me’ is band therapy, Croft sharing festering recriminations: “Just take it out on me/It’s easier than saying what you mean.” The glass menagerie is shattered.
I See You dismisses any sonic distinction between ‘Jamie xx’ and ‘The xx’, allowing the group to achieve symmetry. That it is a paradoxical album, exuding euphoric melancholy, ensures that The xx remain unique.
On 2010’s inaugural Australian run, The xx incongruously played the nocturnal xx at Laneway in afternoon slots. Ironically, though I See You is mainly for daytime, they’ll now be headlining festivals. But it’s music for amphitheatres. And, yes, expect to spot I See You in “Best of 2017” lists. Good times.