Review Summary: A seesaw between past and future.
It’s readily apparent from the buzzing two-step and brazen horns on opener “Dangerous” that the xx have hitched their wagon completely and finally to Jamie Smith’s star. After the muted, hesitant Coexist
it was clear that the xx weren’t going to be able to coast off the haunting goth-pop of an unusually striking debut; that self-titled record was the sort of phenomenon that only comes around once in a great while, pop songs cloaked in mystery and hurt and driven by icy, crystalline beatmaking. Billboard is still imitating the xx
in 2016, but the band itself struggled to do much more than create a pale imitation of the original on Coexist
, vibrant album cover notwithstanding. They encounter no such trouble clambering out of the shackles of their past here, however. “Dangerous” makes a beeline straight for the dance floor, while first single “On Hold” pitch-shifts an old Hall and Oates hit into the xx’s most unrepentantly funky track. Smith’s warmly received 2015 record, In Colour
, is the most obvious touchstone, but while the edges have been smoothed down to practically nothing and the value is through the roof, the focus, as always, remains on the band’s uncanny sense of intimacy.
There’s a maturity to the approach of vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft that is highlighted by the production putting them up front and center. The xx are synonymous with tales of quiet desperation, but Smith’s work on I See You
enhances Sim’s and Madley-Croft’s decidedly modest vocal stylings by focusing on the emotional depth charges their packed lyrics bring, making the songs, at their best, impossible to just float along with. Consider “Brave for You” - a track that would have barely registered above much of a murmur on previous albums - where Smith’s carefully manicured production gently but firmly accompanies Madley-Croft’s letter to her dead parents, with a laser sharp synth line arcing around and a bit of jungle in the drums. The disillusionment Sim struggles with in “A Violent Noise” is reflected in the gradual build-up in the track, playing with the expectations of your classic rave drop by emphasizing the isolation and emptiness that permeates a club more often than not (“Is the music too loud for me to hear?”, Sim asks pointedly). “Say Something Loving” flips its soft-rock tropes on its head, twisting a straightforward story of longing and disappointment into a perpetual motion machine of drum samples, the singers’ second-guessing reflected brightly in the music. The album is a crate digger’s dream; every track reveals something new to dive into, another previously unnoticed sonic flourish.
I See You
is nevertheless still very much an xx album. “Performance” is the centerpiece of the album, and as Madley-Croft’s finest vocal showcase, underlined by little more than a melancholy guitar line and swirling ghosts of violins in the background, it is very much a nostalgic treat for fans. Brutal closer “Test Me” will also be familiar to those who miss the group’s duets, and Smith’s delicate touches, descending into phantom vocal snippets and a rising tide of noise, only accentuate what is a devastating confession between the two. The mixing of old tricks with a new coat of paint is one that generally serves I See You
well, but as rich as the songs get here, it doesn’t pack quite as big a punch as band no doubt intended. Whether that’s because of the bit of levity that Smith’s production here brings, or the uneven juxtaposition of tracks that are alternately awkward and jumbled (“Lips”) and by-the-numbers mid-tempo shuffling (“Replica”), few things, other than some particularly bold choices, stand out (“On Hold” was a brilliant single choice, in other words). I See You
is a pleasant enough listen, and in embracing Smith’s more hot-blooded production, the xx have avoided becoming stuck in a rut a second time. Yet like Sim and Madley-Croft in song after song, I See You
still leaves me wanting something undefined: something more.