For a band that seemingly emerged out of nowhere, the xx have made an impressive impact. Their 2009 debut xx received unanimous critical acclaim and won the 2010 Mercury Prize, despite relatively little radio play and the absence of any singles that could be called a “hit.” More importantly, the band’s sound became highly influential in the indie scene, as evidenced by a recent Pitchfork article titled “8 Songs that Borrow from the xx’s Playbook.” While the xx have all of the trappings of your average indie-electronic bands that were all the rage in 2009-10, they set themselves apart with one word that pops up in nearly all of their reviews – minimalism. Romy Madley Croft provides the occasional guitar riff, Oliver Sim scatters bass notes, and Jamie xx (real name Jamie Smith) lays down muted, processed beats, yet no instrument particularly dominates any moment. Similarly, Madley Croft sings with a hushed, confessional voice, trading off with Sim’s distant monotone on nearly each track, to create relatively ambient vocals that blend with the instrumentation.
Three years after the xx released their breakthrough debut, they released its follow-up, Coexist. This sophomore album seemed to be the logical conclusion of the band’s minimalist style, with all of the elements that made xx so enjoyable still present yet significantly toned down. The result was as ethereal as Beach House’s brand of dream pop, but with less intrigue. Arguably more importantly than the xx’s second album was Jamie xx’s first solo full-length effort, In Colour, which was one of the best albums of 2015 (if not the best). In contrast to the xx’s restraint, Jamie xx’s album was heavily influenced by electronic dance music and included the banger “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” featuring the rapper Young Thug. His bandmates appear on three of In Colour’s tracks, which vaguely sound like livelier xx songs and raised the question: what if the xx made a whole album like this?
When the xx announced their third album, I See You, on November 10, 2016, its first single “On Hold” seemed to hint that we might get an answer. A duet between Madley Croft and Sim during its verses gives way to Jamie taking over at the hook with dance beats and a looped sample of “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates. It’s one of the most energetic tracks the xx have made to date, and Jamie’s contribution, finely honed from In Colour, really stands outs. Also, if you watch the SNL live performance, you can see Madley Croft and Sim engaging in some top-notch awkward dancing at the chorus.
Despite the liveliness of “On Hold,” I See You wavers back and forth between the minimal stylings of the xx’s first two albums and the fullness of In Colour. It begins on a strong note with “Dangerous,” a track interspersed with prominent horn samples and backed by a groovy bassline and breakbeat drums reminiscent of In Colour’s “Gosh.” This keeps up with the guitar and vocal-driven “Say Something Loving,” the choir-sampling “Lips,” and the house music-influenced “A Violent Noise.” Towards the end of the album, the steady beat of “I Dare You” and the aforementioned “On Hold” carry a similar amount of energy, both sure to keep listeners engaged. Each of these tracks makes ample use of Jamie’s freshly honed production credentials, and both Madley Croft and Sim’s amped up instrumentation and vocals show they’re on board with this more vivacious style.
The drawback to this intensified approach is that the quieter moments feel so much weaker in the context of I See You than they would on any of the previous xx releases. In between “A Violent Noise” and “On Hold,” the album takes a major turn back toward minimalism, beginning with the Madley Croft-driven “Performance.” The track “Replica” offers some respite, with a synthesizer and guitar hook that brings the xx’s debut album to mind, but its placement between “Performance” and the equally bland “Brave For You” dulls its strengths. Closing out the album is “Test Me,” which sounds like a Coexist outtake, thanks to its sparse synthesizers and ambient feel. These tracks would have fared better if they had been on xx or Coexist, but the new energy found on I See You steamrolls right over them.
Aside from louder beats and more prominent instrumentation, I See You also benefits from significantly more impassioned vocals by both Madley Croft and Sim. The former’s borderline whispers are now emotionally belted pleas, and the latter’s borderline mumble now carry significant inflection. You hear this most strongly on the duets of “Say Something Loving” and “On Hold,” where their voices excellently complement one another. However, it sometimes can feel slightly overdone, like Romy Croft’s Adele-esque vocals on “Performance,” and has the slightly unfortunate effect of bringing the band’s lyrics to the fore. The xx have never had the most profound way with words, since the vocals previously played second fiddle to the instrumentation and overall feel of the song, which is why even great tracks like “Dangerous” have lines like “’Cause I couldn’t care less/If they call us reckless/Until they are breathless/They must be blind.”
I See You shows the xx taking a bold step in a new direction, even if it’s not a full step. The xx are at their best when fully embracing their newfound vigor, and those who previously dismissed them as “boring” will be taken aback by tracks like “Dangerous” and “On Hold.” Even though Jamie takes center stage on the album’s highlights, both Madley Croft and Sim have shown significant growth since the last xx albums, and I See You harnesses all of their talents enough to fully differentiate itself as an xx album, not In Colour with more guest vocals. The moments that resemble past xx releases may feel like more of a backslide than a continuation of their sound, but I See You once again reminds us of why the xx became such a breakthrough band in the first place.