The xx are that rare band that everyone inherently likes. Their first album is a masterpiece, as I’ve said before. The only criticism that I’ve ever heard made of them is that they are quote: ‘a bit slow’. Which yeah, they totally are.
Their second album ‘Coexist’ while enjoyable enough did begin to lay bear their limitations. The London three-piece have always made good use of negative space, but on album two they finally drifted into style over substance.
What followed was years of radio silence, whilst band member Jamie enjoyed critical acclaim in his own right. A five year gap is enough to kill most bands, as their audience leaves school, finds a wife, gets a mortgage, and loses all interest in moody indie rock in the process.
However their third album is already one of the year’s biggest releases, and rightly so. It’s a confident return to form.
Perhaps the best thing about ‘I See You’ is that it doesn’t look to reclaim the sound that made the band famous. This is a new chapter in style and narrative.
Vocally Oliver and Romy have grown in confidence. Their harmonising is still the heart of the band. Oliver in particular sings with a depth and richness far from his nervous debut on ‘Crystallised’. Romy on the other hand struggles to convey warmth in her voice, and when she goes for a larger, more expressive sound can fail to convince. However she still conveys heartbreak with an astonishing vibrance and clarity: ‘Brave for You’ is a top-drawer weeper.
The band have clearly enjoyed their time in LA where ‘I See You’ was partly recorded. The album has a subtle west coast flavour to it, reminiscent of the low-fi disco sound of the Chromatics, who opened for the band during their show at the Hollywood Bowl.
Contrast for example the blast of disco horns on the fun opening song ‘Dangerous’, with the washed out soul of ‘Rolling Down the Hill’ by Chromatics off-shoot Glass Candy.
‘On Hold’ was the lead single and recalls Jamie’s love of distorted samples. However it isn’t a song I particularly rate. It has a lovely build to the chorus and Oliver really shines in the lead vocal role. The Hall & Oates loop just doesn’t work. I hate when DJs distort vocal loops like this, and it leaves a hole at the heart of the song where some vocal flair or an instrumental would sit better.
Romy’s sparse, minimalist guitar has always been a big draw for me, and still makes up a big deal of this albums appeal. However there is growth here too, and Romy is unafraid of using the instrument in different ways. ‘Say Something Loving’ opens with a distinctive washed-out riff, totally at odds with the pinched, downbeat playing we’ve seen previously.
‘I See You’ has all the depth, emotion and atmosphere which made their debut so mesmerising. However there is no denying that the band have moved on to something else. In their music we hear introspection, we hear sadness, but some humour too, and a sense of fun.
The xx have not outgrown their willingness to share their deepest fears and desires, and for this we should be grateful. It is their youthful good-nature and wide-eyed emotional honesty which makes for such compelling listening. They may still be pessimists, and ‘I See You’ is no double rainbow. At least now their is a little sunshine showing through their little raincloud.