OFTEN THE XX HAVE seemed like rabbits caught in the glare of their own success. As the most widely-influential band of recent years, the fact that their original formula – part Cocteau Twins, part Joy Division, part Everything But The Girl – proved quite so winning seemed to take them aback as much as it did the rest of us. On-stage, as their recent high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live performing tracks from this, their third album proved, a certain physical awkwardness lingers. It’s something co-singer Romy Madley Croft addresses in Brave for You, her words directed perhaps at the band’s audience, thanking them for emboldening her to “stand on a stage for you / Do the things that I’m afraid to do.”
Musically, the xx are far more self-assured and I See You uses Oliver Sim’s vocal cameo on the standout Stranger In A Room from bandmate Jamie xx’s Mercury-nominated solo excursion In Colour – along with that record’s bright and playful club concoctions – as the springboard into new, if not entirely unfamiliar, sonic depths. for the most part, the dance element of the xx’s sound is pushed to the fore, though sometimes lyrically inverted, as in A Violent Noise where Sim finds himself lost and alienated on the dancefloor, flinching at every thump of the clubland beats.
The USP of the xx has always been the heart-play dialogue between Sim and Madley Croft, and here it veers between intense passion and jaded emotions. Opener Dangerous, with its triumphant brass motif and dubstep beats, sees the pair in the grip of amour fou, ignoring the warnings of their friends. By track two, Say Something Loving, it’s all gone Pete Tong. “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection,” sings Sim. “I went looking for it, could have been anyone’s kiss,” coolly responds Madley Croft.
“It’s the sound of the xx growing up and examining how far they’ve travelled.”
But there’s a lightness here previously missing in the xx’s often sepulchral soundscapes, evident in On Hold’s joyful sampling of Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), and the slowed dancehall groove of Lips. Characteristically, though, there’s also darkness and, if the singers have often in the past seemed to be playing fictional roles, something close to real confession emerges. Sim frets in Replica that he’s becoming a clichéd rock star figure whose mistakes “were only chemical” as he moves from “another encore to an aftershow”.
In other words, this is the sound of the xx growing up and examining how far they’ve travelled. I See You is more nuanced and upbeat than their previous records but, perhaps shrewdly, it enhances their blueprint rather than completely redrawing it.
A solid third album, then, it will shore up their popularity and expand their reach. In 2017, it will likely be everywhere.
Watch the video for On Hold…