Album Review: The XX – “I See You”

9/10

Album Review: The XX – “I See You”

Atmospheric English indie pop group the xx formed in South London in 2005 when band members, Oliver Sim, Romy Madley- Croft and Jamie Smith were still at secondary school. They released their stunning, critically and commercially acclaimed self-titled album in 2009 when they were all still of a pretty young age – (hence the band name, XX is the Roman Numeral for 20 – their average age at the time.)

The album went on to rank highly on many “best of 2009” lists, including number one on the list compiled by The Guardian and second for NME. In 2010, the band won the prestigious Mercury Prize. The success was deserved – the debut was both captivating and cool with a quiet, reserved self-assurance filled with seductive R&B influenced songs set to sparse yet highly effective reverbed guitar and string arrangements. At the centre of this was the hushed singing partnership between Madley- Croft and Sim – their vocals understated but intimate, making it hard for the listener to believe they weren’t more than just childhood friends. Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie xx on stage) was the “accidental” producer and programmer and showed an unerring ability to find rhythms that supported the emotions of the songs.

After this, came the release of their second album, Coexist in 2012 which was a decent extension of the sounds that had shaped their debut. The overall vibe was still idyllically insular and bare, none more so that on the lead single – the excellent, ethereal Angels – but the band were keeping the arrangements limited so that the songs could be performed live. In between each album release Smith was building a successful career as a record producer, remixer and DJ and has been recognised with a 2016 Grammy Award nomination in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category for his solo release In Colour. He has also remixed for Florence and The Machine, Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album “I’m New Here” as well as producing for Drake and Alicia Keys.

The band were fired up with Smith’s solo success and realised they could expand on a new version of their sound, richer and more varied whilst remaining true to their roots. Sims and Madley-Croft also began writing together, rather than by email, which encouraged a more open and informal working relationship and this in turn, enhanced their writing subject matter. I See You is their eagerly awaited third album and was recorded between March 2014 and August 2016 in New York, Texas, Reykjavik, Los Angeles and London. It has been produced by Jamie xx together with Rodaidh McDonald.

Dangerous opens up the album with surprising sharp horn blasts followed by an uptempo bass line and seamless synths. It’s unlike anything that has appeared on previous xx albums and it’s a real delight. It grooves and grinds along – perfect for playing loud and at the forefront, as always , the defining vocals of Madley-Croft and Sim. It’s an infectious song and a brilliant start to the album. Say Something Loving has the distinctive xx sound of glistening guitar and building strings, it’s a track that is bolstered by layers of rich textures. Madley-Croft and Sim intertwine vocally, almost conversationally and this brings added warmth and intimacy to the song.

Romy Madley-Croft could honestly sing the telephone directory and manage to make it sound alluring and evocative none more so that on the next song , the dreamy dazzling Lips – it’s fabulous in flavour and a fine example of another small stretch away from the xx minimalist sound due to the expansiveness of Smith’s multi-layers of samples and synth. Performance is the centrepiece of the album, the band’s most intense torch song yet. It is defined by the minimalist melancholy and Madley-Croft sounds mournful, alongside Sim’s restrained bass. Her vocal ebbs and flows: “You won’t see me hurting/ When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”. The song is filled with poignancy as Smith fills in the gaps with strings, brass, and more densely layered production. It’s impossibly beautiful.

Replica is a song mainly presented by Sim accompanied by a hushful partner in Madley-Croft and explores the feelings of having a lack of an individual identity. It’s a late night lament underpinned by a spidery “Cure infused” guitar which makes the song shimmer. Brave For You is a tribute to Madley-Croft’s deceased parents, but it could be about anyone’s loss, and is sung with earnest tenderness by Madley-Croft whilst Smith works his magic with rolling drums, twanging guitar and mournful organ synth sounds. It’s a lush arrangement, with rich textures that balance well with the muted sorrow of the words.

On Hold is the lead single from the album – a singular synth note introduces the song while Sim and Madley-Croft trade sentences in “Where did it all go wrong?” conversation. The song builds in steady waves and again is one of the dancier tracks on the record – the production is ace and at the centre is a funky, mangled vocal loop extracted from a Hall and Oates song – an example of the band becoming confident in their ability to try new things. I Dare You is quite simply brilliant – the band still use their classic sound as a base but this song is lifted in momentum with soaring synth, glistening guitar and an infectious optimism. One of the stand out tracks of the album.

I See You, quite simply is a sonic delight. It’s polished, seamless, the production is breath-taking and whilst there has been a notable change in direction, the essence of xx is omni-present – a trio comfortable in their own skin- aware of the darkness but not afraid of letting in some light. It most certainly was worth the four year wait. An utter delight.

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