Arts & Culture

The xx demonstrates bold artistic development with new LP ‘I See You’

Band’s latest album trades distinctive sensual ambience for involved instrumental textures

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Since the rise of band member Jamie xx’s solo career, nothing has been the same for London-based indie pop band the xx. In 2015, Jamie xx — the 28-year-old English DJ and record producer long at the helm of many of the group’s  best beats — released his breakthrough solo effort “In Colour.” Marking a serious detour from the sensual, reserved tones and themes found throughout the xx’s discography, the solo record instead leans toward brasher sonics and abundant sampling. The LP’s lead single “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” featuring choppy rhyming by rapper Young Thug and splashes of reverb, is maybe the most obvious counterpoint to the drab and passive material present on the xx’s “Coexist,” the band’s last LP.

“Coexist,” released in 2012, epitomizes much of the common criticism of the Young Turks-signed band — namely, vocalists Romy Croft and Oliver Sim’s often bland and understated delivery. At their best, the restricted vocals and forlorn lyrics of the two effectively convey an anguished sense of longing. The greatest music by the xx is characterized by an all-too-powerful sense of romantic restraint — perfect for soundtracking the inconspicuous hookups of the modern era. But at their worst, Croft and Sim provide the listener with little more than passionless and pretentious murmurs, reflecting an inorganic depression. This flat minimalism, accentuated by Jamie xx’s stripped-back production, easily lends itself to an ambivalent listening experience and is much more evident on “Coexist” than on the band’s debut release.

Released five years after “Coexist,” the third LP by the xx, “I See You,” is a brave and welcomed new world for the British indie institution. The xx clearly took notes from 2015’s “In Colour” and at least partially distanced itself from its minimalist roots. In an interview with New Music Express, a prominent British music publication, Jamie xx stated that his solo album “definitely informed” what the band would be doing on its next album. Hearing the LP’s first single, the influence is undeniable.

With bold textures taken straight out of disco and a sampled Hall and Oates hook, radio hit single “On Hold” most clearly evinces the extent of the xx’s evolution. While the newfound manic energy and sampling are obvious nods to “In Colour,” the xx succeeds in demonstrating artistic progression that comes off as neither contrived nor an abandonment of the band’s previous themes. If anything, the xx’s distinctive brand of melancholy is accentuated. In the opening lines of the single, Craft croons “I can’t hold on/To an empty space,” lamenting her loss with an urgency that is seamlessly complemented by pulsating, heart-thumping rhythms. “On Hold” ostensibly details a break-up with a former lover — a narrative it does due justice. After hearing the song, it’s difficult not to have a head flooded with as many memories of past relationships as the song has beats per minute. But the dense layers of instrumentation obscure a deeper reading of the track: the xx’s break-up with a former sound.

Much of the band’s output up to this point functioned as a glacial and reflective setting for a passive listener. Yet on “I See You,” there truly is little room for the “empty space” Croft alludes to abandoning. Deeper cuts like “I Dare You” and “Dangerous” operate in the same engaging vain as “On Hold,” effectively embracing the newly aggressive, Jamie xx-inspired sound. Croft and Sim still sing and write with the same crestfallen affect that made older songs such as “VCR” and “Angels” so effective; they have merely traded ambience for more violent noise.

The only major misfires of the record are its regressions. Stumbling back into sleep-inducing territory and awkward executions, tracks like “Lips” remind listeners of what rendered “Coexist” so forgettable. While the lyrical platitudes and lazy instrumentals might appeal to some, the forced malaise and sensuality come across as boring. Most of the LP avoids devolving into a Tumblr blog’s soundtrack — it’s about three years too late anyway — thankfully opting instead for bold experimentation.

The efforts of individual members fuse together on “I See You.” Croft and Sim’s delivery and Jamie xx’s production work wonderfully together as a true confluence of tenderness and energy. The most interesting artists in music are at once irrevocably tied to their style and increasingly set on transcending it. Saying the indie pop group hits this paradoxical apex would be too much praise. Ultimately, the xx remains too mired in a pseudo-depressed sound to reach a creative peak with the LP.  But with “I See You,” the band offers some much-needed stylistic change and more than hints at an actualization of potential.