Review Summary: Chemistry.
The high points of I See You are found in the chemistry. More so than any other album by the xx, each member feels like they they have an important role to play, and they help the other in playing it. The xx began in sparse spaces, where Jamie xx made it his job to try to stay hidden, and let the vocals and guitar work be heard above all else, but his solo work since that time has given him a new sense of direction and confidence to make himself heard in the group. In fact, the two highest points for me particularly on the album, the chorus of On Hold, which has a manipulated vocal sample; and the horns on Dangerous, are both thanks to the quality of Jamie xx's production.
Don't get me wrong, this greater emphasis on the electronic side of things does not mean that both Romy and Oliver's performances are not worthwhile. In fact, it's some of most dynamic it's ever been. On the song "Replica", Oliver delivering the lines of "mirroring situations like you're an imitation" and “And as if I tried to, I turned out just like you” over Romy's croons sees some of the most beautiful chemistry on the album, and those lines in particular have a great sense of groove when coupled with Jaime xx's drum work. And on "Lips" and "I Dare You", the combined timbres of Romy and Oliver's alto and tenor voices compliment each other beautifully, adding fullness to each others voices. And because of this fullness, it makes the choruses feel even richer than if it were just one voice.
While the vocals are beautifully delivered, the lyrics written for them are unfortunately not as engaging. Most of the songs on here are about love and heartbreak in some way, and they're not treading any new ground within the subject. "Dangerous" is about how a dangerous person is going to break your heart. “Lips” is about how getting too attached to a person can break your heart. “On Hold” is about how a person who suddenly becomes cold towards you can break your heart. “A Violent Noise” is about how it's hard to live with that broken heart. It's predictable. But, it's never unbearable enough where it stops the music from having it's power. They're using their voices in interesting ways, it just seems like what they were saying were missed opportunities.
However, I felt that "Performance" transcended this. With a solo performance from Romy about how she has to has put on another personality around the ones that she loves, it felt noticeably more personal and honest than the others. With Romy's slow and trembling vocal performance, and the genuineness of her expressiveness, it gave the song a beautiful power and emotion. And having this alongside the gentle and airy guitar work, Jamie xx's subtle (but not hidden) synth work, and the complimenting strings, gave more breath and meaning to Romy's voice, and the song itself.
It's moments like this that show the true power of this album. Jamie never overpowers with his production, while still building a house for a Oliver and Romy's vocals to live in. But more than that, he's also made a home for himself. Replica is a clear example, where he is constantly morphing the atmosphere to play well with Romy and Oliver's vocals, while filling the spaces in between their breaths with piano and guitar fills. And on the chorus, he allows his more tropical synth vibes to shine through prevalently, while still giving Romy room to croon, and have it feel like a compliment, not a detriment. And with On Hold, Jamie creates an airy synth pad for Romy and Oliver to sing over, and subtly raises the drums in the mix, making their vocals have a sense of rising intensity, and finally gets his moment in the chorus with the manipulated Halls and Oates sample, and it feels right - like he should've had this importance all along.
The album even ends on Jamie xx's synth work, as quiet and moody as it is. And Test Me in itself shows everyone's strength's equally. With a simple drone and piano during Romy and Oliver's unison singing, it eventually evolves into a reflection of the album itself, with subtle drums and hi-hats that slowly rise up to a frantic mix of Romy and Oliver's vocals. It ends the album appropriately – with every member represented. This should be showing enough as to the xx's direction in the future, a group who's chemistry is fully fulfilled – and we're seeing the stems of that here.