Album review: The xx – I See You

John Preston

It’s always interesting when the least unlikely and seemingly fame-reticent artists can be become a key, sometimes sole, influence to what eventually becomes a mainstream trend. The xx have a sound that was an amalgamation of various music styles that proceeded their conception admittedly. But their brand of low key, mood driven hip-hop indie pop was constructed in such a way to render them instantly recognisable and desirable enough to eventually be incorporated by the likes of Rhianna, Lana Del Rey (‘Flipside’ if you haven’t heard it) and, er, London Grammar. The London trio’s debut album, xx, was released in 2009 and was instantly awarded classic status by critics and sold well. It’s 2012 follow-up, Coexist, was more of the same but, somehow, less so. Turn on the radio, go to a shopping centre or watch an advert now and you’ll still hear elements of their sound everywhere.

I See You was preceded by 2 tracks which suggests Jamie xx’s In Colour debut had rubbed off on his day job’s work mates. ‘Say Something Loving’ and the Hall and Oates sampling ‘On Hold’ are both prime-time dance pop with roots in the last 30 years of club culture and are the most vibrant and bright-eyed the band has ever sounded. ‘Say Something Loving’ still unmistakably reveals its identity as the group within seconds; that guitar sound, those keyboards, but it’s the lead vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim that can’t help but give the game away. Madley Croft still sounds wonderfully like a slightly less suffering Tracey Thorn from eighties indie-bedsit pop group Everything But the Girl and Sim is rich and deep with a beguiling sensuality. But the more extrovert rush of these songs is not representative of I See You’s overall mood and the most common tempo is still resolutely set to mid and not manic.

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The lyrical theme of facing fears full on in an attempt to reveal versions of a self that may be long buried due to shame or struggle is stunningly captured in songs like ‘Performance’. Madley Croft describes the pretence of projecting an image that betrays her inner weakness so that she can survive familiar and hurting environments in a way that is both beautiful and heartbreaking, sonically bold with strings and electronics frequently pausing to take stock and before regaining composure. The band’s often spectator use of space and silence is also used to tremendous effect in the Sim’s lead ‘A Violent Noise’: ‘You’ve been staying out late, trying your best to escape… every beat is a violent noise’ is met by a second of nothing at all. The closing track ‘Test Me’ opens with a prominent backing choir supporting Madley Croft’s lead and a piano which disappears into thin air after 40 seconds, never to return. This is haunting music marked out by a refusal to resort to meek ambiguity.

There are moments on the album though that The xx tick all of their own boxes but do so in a way that suggests that their signature sound could possibly come with a use-by date. ‘Replica’, ‘I Dare You’, and ‘Brave For You’ are lovely to listen to certainly but begin to blend into one and also into the background, a concern that could also be levelled at their sophomore release, Coexist. Jamie xx proved that he has imagination and ambition on his solo album, some of which has filtered into the band’s sound here, but there are tendencies for them to drift into the areas where music is deployed as part of an overall environment as opposed to being the focus. The majority of I See You though is still a highly polished, dramatic and occasionally unexpectedly thrusting comeback for the band, one which should see them sitting amongst the high achievers that cottoned onto such a winning and enduring formula.

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About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.