Since the release of the xx’s near-perfect debut, 2009’s eponymous xx, and its fine sequel, 2012’s Coexist, the xx left and re-entered a pop space that has undergone a drastic tonal shift that they’ve helped to pioneer. There are acts like the Chainsmokers, who pilfered the hazy romantic chords of the band’s debut for pop pastiche, and then there are acts like HONNE and Banks, whose sultry soundscapes were constructed on and around the settings of the xx’s greatest hits.
I See You, the xx’s first release in nearly five years, doesn’t exist in a vacuum closed off from the modern electronic pop they forged, nor does it feel like a grab for relevance. Rather, I See You is a loud revolution delivered on quiet terms, pushing the limits of its fully fleshed-out minimalism into what becomes some of the band’s most appealing work.
Jamie Smith’s impact as the xx’s third member in the group rings louder here than in the past. The work the trio did on In Colour, Jamie’s debut outing as a solo DJ, informs the band’s newfound adventurousness. Its comeback single late last year, “On Hold,” was a red herring. The wait-for-it bass drop and chopped-and-screwed Hall and Oates sample, ultimately, is an indicator of the band’s willingness to delve into an unfamiliar toolkit rather than a total 180 for the band.
It helps that vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim have grown, too. No longer only whispering in hushed tones, they’re aching and longing beyond their own love lives. Songs in I See You explore love that’s familial (“Brave for You”) or love that tests the band’s limits (“Replica”).
The band has dabbled in the dance-worthy before — some of the xx’s most floor-filling tunes (“Basic Space” and “Sunset” come to mind) were always a remix or two away from being slotted on a Majestic Casual compilation. But never has the xx’s sound felt this intricate and expansive. The band has always relied on empty space as another instrument, but the dynamic range of I See You feels fuller, yet still hollow.
Consider “Lips,” in which a Norwegian vocal choir collides with a tropical-house groove and gives rise to a dramatic shoegaze-like guitar lick, or “A Violent Noise,” in which Sim’s lonely feature on In Colour’s “Stranger in a Room” turns claustrophobic. An even better example is album opener “Dangerous,” which houses a UK garage drumline in between horn blasts. This new direction is jarring and funky, and it’s a good look for the trio.
But the xx still lives and dies by the perfect subtleties that define each track. The dissonant strings on “Performance” match up with the discomfort in Romy’s voice; the instrumental swell on “Brave for You,” complete with booming drums, raises her voice up instead. A line like “I couldn’t care less / If they call us reckless” from “Dangerous” wouldn’t work if not for the horns that punctuate each phrase like little exclamation marks on the duo’s us-against-the-world musings.
There’s a drawback to the xx stepping into the spotlight: the lyrical clunkers on I See You grow more pronounced with familiarity where they might have been disregarded in previous albums. The phenomenal “Lips” very nearly gets derailed by a corny throwaway line: “Chemistry is rare in a two-three time affair.” Same goes for “Performance,” in which vulnerable lines get lost in dramatic cliche.
But this is only a slight growing pain for the band. “I Dare You,” the best song off I See You, is familiar and new, not relying on any sonic tricks, just a drum machine and airy guitars. But it’s an anthem filled with “whoa-oh-oh”s and as close to a grown, inspirational line as the xx has ever gotten.
“I’ve been a romantic for so long,” the two sing in the chorus. “All I’ve ever heard are love songs.” The xx can create galaxies out of two people, but they’ve never sung from the outside. I See You is a remarkable step forward for the band; an album for self-aware lovers that captures the band’s growth and youth together.