The xx – I See You
The xx feel like they’ve been gone a while. No, that’s not a bad thing. It could’ve very well been the correct route for this London trio. Their eponymous debut was a bit of an epoch in terms of influence with its oft-imitated, never duplicated blend of late 90s-early 00s R&B and C86 era indie pop. Then again, how can one predict what’s going to hit anymore? Does ‘hitting’ even matter? Both questions this writer cannot answer, nor will I try. 5 years after their sophomore album, Coexist, The xx deliver an album that takes the tenets of their debut, enforces their imposed limitations, yet overfills it enough to make Mary Poppins jealous of their efficiency.
For those paying attention even at a notch above a passive level since Coexist, the last 5 years have seemed to show the rise of Jamie xx, this group’s producer-programmer. A string of decent singles and 2015’s downright magnificent In Colour, one could be forgiven for asking if the band had gone on hiatus or even split. However, I See You arrives to show that this trio has gotten better as a team despite Jamie being the one putting out solo material.
Let’s be honest, The xx would never have been what it was with out the vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. They may not have the range that’ll put them in the same conversation as Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, but there’s something to be said about using what one has to maximum effect. Madley Croft and Sim speak the language of romance and loss to a conversational degree that, for my money, hasn’t really been heard since Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. With “You won’t see me hurting / when my heart it breaks / I’ll put on a performance / I’ll put on a brave face,” Romy Madley Croft may not be treading some great romantic tradition on paper, but her gentle, commanding warble is the centerpiece of the aptly titled “Performance.” Early in the album, Sim stretches out the simple “I just don’t remember” conclusion to “Say Something Loving” lending gravity and yearning where an abrupt exit might feel cold and dismissive.
The undisputed centerpiece of I See You is “On Hold.” A song anchored to Jamie xx’s treated Hall & Oates sample while Sim and Madley Croft seem to be introspectively conversing with each other as the final connections of a relationship fray away. Warm synths lay a nice bed for Madley Croft’s declarative “I don’t blame you / We got carried away” and Sim’s assertive response of “When and where did we go cold?” and later “Every time I let you leave / I always saw you coming back to me.” “I Dare You” follows “On Hold” as a synth splash of self-realization that the process of romance can be thrilling. “I’m in love with it,” opens Sim with Madley Croft later to clarify “I’ve been a romantic for so long / All I’ve ever had are love songs.” Even more indicative is the statement “A rush of blood is not enough / I need my feelings set on fire.” Set to a glorious stroll of a beat, it’s a rather rapturous counterpoint to “On Hold.”
Five years may be somewhat of an eternity in terms of pop music, especially in these times we live in. In terms of The xx, I See You shows that a break can be good thing. And for those – like myself – who really wanted more after The xx and Coexist, this trio took the time they needed to figure out their direction. The result: an album that delivers the vulnerability, helplessness, love and loss with more panache and style and very few, if any, flaws.