The XX are a band that harness negative space within music to create an atmosphere so chillingly retrospective that in most cases it need only be listened to underneath moonlight. The trio slid anxiously into the industry with their debut, XX, an album that, unbeknownst to them, would become an international success. The suave blend of spacious indie-electronic beats provided by Jamie (xx) Smith and the minimal vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim proved them to be the perfect vessel for conveying the vernacular of heartbreak and loss.
Following this was 2012’s Coexist, an even more stripped back, sparsely decorated mansion that refined the sonic footnotes of their debut to an extent which almost made it seem claustrophobic and limiting. The prevailing force that has prevented the trio from suffocating themselves has been the success of Jamie xx. While The XX revolved around the idea of enforcing limitations in order to create sonically and lyrically cohesive music, Jamie xx’s solo projects were built upon samples, and were subsequently somewhat unpredictable.
It would be naive to say the success of his 2015 release In Colour hasn’t had an impact on The XX’s third album I See You. The production has become bolder, cleaner, and smarter. In the opening track ‘Dangerous’, horns and trumpets give salutations before the pummelling bassline kicks the track into a steady pace that hasn’t been heard in any of their music prior to this. ‘On Hold’ distinguishes itself as a post-In Colour cut with its injection of effervescent pop and sampling into the juxtaposing subject of uncertain love.
Although the expansion of production has pushed the envelope of what works for the trio, we cannot ignore the progress made by Madley Croft and Sim. In previous releases, it was apparent that the anxiety portrayed lay not only in the fear of reaching for a failing love, but in the singers themselves. Both have seemingly overcome this, and as a result have been able to craft and hone the delivery of every line to portray the themes of the release. As Romy yearns in ‘Performance’, “I’ll put on a performance’ she subtly drags out the last syllable, as if to show she is exhausted at the idea of creating another persona for love.
While I See You is very much a continuation of themes found in previous releases, it stands as its own cohesive story. We are guided by the music to imagine the beginning, middle, end and re-ignition of a relationship. It may have began in a nightclub as the beats come hard and fast in ‘Dangerous’, and the sensual whispers in ‘Lips’ show some development yet we are still bound by uncertainty as the lyrics reflect some fears. ‘Performance’ is a bare illustration of a low point, depersonalisation is thrown into the mixing bowl along with the anxious thought that they may be boring their partner, reflected through delicate strings and eerily cutting vocals. ‘On Hold’ captures the period of the relationship where it seems to be over, but emotions are still coursing through the veins of both involved, and while both parties try to move on, they are drawn back together – “Every time I let you leave, I always saw you coming back to me”. Finally, ‘Test Me’ is a testament to the ebb and flow of relationships and the uncertainty that comes with them. The paradol line “Test me, see if I stay, how could I walk the other way” illustrates this perfectly, almost challenging their partner to make them leave, but at the same time admitting that they are bound to them.
I See You is a near seamless release, flowing in such a way that rearranging the tracks would derail its powerful underlying themes. As such, each track has its place on the album in context with the others. The expansion in production and vocal competence are exactly what the trio needed right now, and there should be no doubt that they will be rewarded for their progress. Mitchell Goudie