The xx are more captivating than ever before on their third album, ‘I See You’ [Album Review]
When The xx emerged on the scene with their self-titled debut album in 2009, they did so with a sound and vision so perfectly suited to what it sought to express that they came across like a band that had been fine-tuning their craft for decades. That album, and its 2012 follow-up, Coexist, proved that the London trio were the real deal – undisputed masters of their own signature brand of delicate, almost painfully intimate indie pop. But even a sound as expertly constructed as The xx’s can grow tired if it doesn’t evolve. Thankfully, The xx have evaded the potential of stagnation with their dutifully developed third LP. I See You is a work of such remarkable sound design and flawless execution that, if any doubts remained as to the band’s longevity, they have been emphatically been silenced.
The album’s opener, “Dangerous,” signals the trio’s stylistic evolution from its very first notes. Bright, crisp horns give way to a surprisingly buoyant house beat that may be the most club-ready thing the group has produced to date. Where previously they would build a mood with sparse, skeletal harmonies, I See You finds The xx thickening their sound, writing more complex arrangements out of larger, fuller components. This choice pays off spectacularly, thanks largely in part to the efforts of percussionist and producer Jamie xx, who turned heads and made his mark as a solo artist with 2015’s sparkling In Colour.
The stylistic diversity and technical acumen that made Jamie’s solo record such a triumph find more of a home in I See You than on previous band releases. The production on I See You is every bit as deft and inspired as its creator’s solo work, pumping new life and warmth into Oliver and Romy’s pristine melodies. The band’s previous efforts were so spare and crystalline that they might have shattered if grasped too hard, but this newest opus is anchored in heavier layers, intricately textured, and vividly alive.
The xx have always dealt in the ethereal. Their best songs are often their most simple, as if the emotions they’re trying to convey are so complicated, vast, and profound that they can only be communicated in the faintest of whispers. At their best, The xx make every single note seem essential and inevitable, and they conjure a sense of vulnerability so affecting that listening to it almost feels like an act of violation. Longtime fans need not fret – the atmospheric melancholy of I See You is as potent and haunting as anything in their catalogue. On “Performance” in particular, Romy’s guitar sounds like its echoing through an empty cathedral, her voice flutters over trembling strings with the remarkably contrasting character of blissful heartbreak.
These soft-spoken ballads would be more than at home on either of the two previous xx records, but their presence on I See You, juxtaposed with the broad richness of the album’s more energetic cuts, makes them, and the album as a whole, that much more impactful. The measured stomp of ‘Lips’ and limitless crescendo of ‘A Violent Noise’ are even more powerful in contrast to each other than they would be taken alone, or if the album were more structurally rigid. This album has conflict, motion, variation, and a sense of playfulness that was lacking from the band’s earlier output. It uses its complexity to cover a wider spectrum of color and feeling, and by doing so each moment is felt more deeply.
I See You is so harmonious and assured that it comes across as a work of consummate collaboration. No one sound, sentiment, or band member upstages another. Instead, the fully collaborative work offers up a succession of dualities: presence and absence, heartbreak and hopefulness, ambition and restraint, and reflection and levity. Over the album’s course, these dichotomies proceeds to play each off the other until the borders blur and, ultimately, dissolve. Every facet, from the drum beats to the vocal harmonies, fit together in effortless unity. Any listeners capable of extracting themselves from the end product’s gravity will find that the sheer technical brilliance of the songwriting alone enough to evoke pure wonderment.
I See You is a good album. It’s the kind of good that is readily called great, and aspires to perfection. Premature and impulsive though it undoubtedly is to say, it’s the kind of work that will likely come to be called a masterpiece. So effortless is it, so emotionally engaging and unfailingly, achingly human, that it transcends the time and place of its origins and reaches for the eternal. Only two weeks in to 2017, The xx have delivered what, in all likelihood, will be a contender for the year’s best album.