Incorporating all the talents each member brings to the table with new innovations to their well established bittersweet formula, The XX return from their hiatus sounding just as refreshing as they did back in 2009.
By Liam Menzies (@blinkclyro)
Soft spoken and introverted, the international success of The XX back in 2009 was somewhat an anomaly due to how much they differed from similar UK acts who managed to make it across the pond with braggadocious attitudes and face melting riffs. Comprised of Oliver Sim, Romy Croft and Jamie ‘XX’ Smith, the indie rock outfit seemingly came out of nowhere with their bittersweet soft melodies to win the Mercury Prize Award with their eponymously titled debut and become one of the most talked about acts of the late noughties. Most of this no doubt came from how the band managed to accumulate their hype, refusing to appear on their covers despite the fact that Sim is male model handsome. In an interview back in 2010 with The Guardian, Croft proclaimed that “We’re very keen not to be…flash” and the band has not went back on that promise, still adorning black clothing that many would describe as suburban goth.
Having influenced various other UK acts who have tried to replicate the act’s sound, most of the time very poorly (here’s looking at you London Grammar), it would have been so easy for The XX to stumble into the pitfall of maintaining the status quo much like they did with their atmospheric yet somewhat repetitive sophomore record Co-Exist. Thankfully, though, the London band have managed to shake up their well-established sound on third LP I See You which, in Jamie’s own words, makes the record their most expansive and outward looking to date.
From the first single off of I See You ‘On Hold‘, it’s painstakingly clear that The XX have all brought their own merits to the table and tried to innovate on them further with the biggest plus to the formula no doubt being the spotlight shone on Jamie XX far more than the act’s previous efforts, in no small part due to his stellar debut record In Colour. The sublime sampling of Hall & Oates is utterly captivating and displays Smith’s, as well as Rodaidh McDonald’s, wonderful production capabilities, giving the song a funky rhythm which makes it one of The XX’s most lively tracks to date, something of an oddity in the act’s discography but a welcome change nonetheless. On Hold not only displays the evolution in sound but a further refining of the lyrical content provided by Sim and Croft with the topic of ambiguity tying it beautifully to the sampling, resulting in one of the most cohesive pieces of music to come out of 2017.
This is, of course, totally overlooking opening track ‘Dangerous’ which makes it immediately evident that while the themes of lost love, relationship woes etc. are all still very much apparent, the way in which they’re delivered, at least sonically anyway, are extremely different to what The XX have done before. Beginning with some isolated saxophones and trumpets followed up by a lone, soothing and alluring bassline, Smith brings it all together into one bubbling cauldron that never feels like it’s trying to do too much at once but never feels as minimal or stripped back as their debut was.
Something that’s worth discussing is the vocals, provided by Sim and Croft, that are as pleasant as always but seem to stick out more considering the step forward in terms of production and sound. While they never sound abysmal or even sub par, only one track, that being Performance, manages to display that three records either vocalist is attempting to anything different with their voices. As mentioned, though, both Sim and Croft manage to do their jobs well and even show glimmers of chemistry on tracks like Say Something Loving which features some added production by Croft, showing that she provides more than just a good set of pipes.
While there are many changes that are apparent on I See You, what’s utterly remarkable and something that should be commended is the fact that The XX are simultaneously pushing themselves out of their comfort zone while staying true to their humble roots. The sampling on display and subsequent alterations to the sound make it feel like an R&B album more than an alt rock one but the emotional voices that manage to project both passion and insecurities feel so quintessentially XX. There are tracks that feel like they could have been ripped straight off of their debut like ‘Performance’ while others like ‘Dangerous’ and ‘On Hold’ feel like they’ve landed from a parallel universe where the band are far less timid.
I See You shows reminiscing, acceptance and strength, feeling like the most solid chapter in The XX arc but leaving room for the inevitable follow-up to build upon the now strengthened foundations.