“Second time around, feels like the song’s already been sung” are words sung by co-vocalist Oliver Sim on ‘Replica’. After recording two stylistically cohesive albums that established their brand of downtempo melancholic indie – inspiring London Grammar, Arctic Lake and Daughter among others – and made them spokespeople for the fresh-thinking and out-of-place generation, The XX felt like the third album was the right time to expand their mood.
A four and a half years gap since their second album Co-Exist has given the trio time to reflect. This along with producer Jamie XX’s ego-boosting solo project In Colour in 2015 is responsible for a shift in composition. That said, The XX’s allegiance shouldn’t be too fearful of an identity metamorphosis. As exemplified by the American located video for teaser single ‘On Hold’, they are still the same black-clothed wearing awkward Londoners but this time they’re fishing in a bigger pond.
What made The XX charming wasn’t just that their minimalist timid approach majestically standing out against the loud in-your-face narcissistic modern pop routinely broadcast on music video channels, but the way that they fused indie (band attitude and guitar) with subtle alternative dance aesthetics (the drum machines and nocturnal usage of low frequency oscillation comparable to Massive Attack and Unkle) without sounding pretentious.
Although there’s plenty of The XX’s patient nocturnal music on show, their third album I See You carefully expands upon the dance side of this coalition without breaking the harmony between the two genres. ‘Dangerous’ is at its most extreme. A dubstep beat accompanied by Woodkid-like marching brass and sirens turned in a thick house force. Of course tracks from The XX have been widely remixed in the past but it’s surprising to hear an original this way. It’s as if Jamie XX has tried to resist the temptation of pumping things up but his experience with his solo record In Colour has broken those barriers.
Other examples include the erupting trance on ‘A Violent Noise’ reminiscent of a Faithless rave, the deep EDM vocal looping on ‘On Hold’ and the rapid CD-skipping on finale ‘Test Me’ which threatens to be quite epic. Significantly, Jamie XX also brings his love of sampling to the table with David Lang‘s ‘Just’, Alessi Brothers‘ ‘Do You Feel It?’ and Hall and Oates‘ ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ being borrowed, which on an XX album is quite refreshing and contributes to making each track more distinctive.
However, before you think that songwriters Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are simply slaves to Jamie’s rhythm, their increasingly emotive vocals and use of lyrics is just as crucial to I See You. Rather than simply speaking about universal issues of unrequited love, loneliness and break-ups like the previous two albums, this time they both write specifically about themselves. Oliver underwent a traumatic time with alcoholism and depression during the hiatus and addresses this issue on ‘A Violent Noise’, a song which also includes a message about the importance of friendship support. While conversely the conflict-documenting ‘Test Me’ documents struggle between long-term friends.
Romy sings about the death of her parents and her stoic disguise on ‘Performance‘ and ‘Brave For You’, the latter including the lyrics: “So I will be brave for you/Stand on a stage for you/Do things I’m afraid to do.” It’s a song that also comments on a pursuit to break out of her comfort zone, something of which The XX have achieved on this album.
I See You is available now through Young Turks.