“Dangerous,” the opening song off The xx’s third album “I See You” surprised me from the minute I started listening. Opening with the fanfare of a brass-like synth, it seemed a far cry from the minimal guitar, bass and subtle production of The xx’s previous work. But as the characteristic Jamie xx drum loop came in, I realized I’d heard this before — Jamie xx’s critically acclaimed solo debut “In Colour” had an energy that stood out against The xx’s restrained, emotional ambience. With The xx’s third LP “I See You,” we see them more openly embracing Jamie xx’s production style while still staying true to the roots they established on 2009’s “The xx” — efficient, evocative guitar and bass textures coupled with Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim’s quiet but resonant vocal interplay.
In this way, “I See You” is not so much a reinvention as a progression. Thankfully, Jamie xx’s expanded production doesn’t overshadow The xx’s essential qualities. “Say Something Loving,” the album’s second single, is emblematic of the record as a whole, sounding at once familiar and entirely new. None of the pieces here — light, precise guitar, the conversation of Romy’s alto and Oliver’s baritone, the casual studio wizardry courtesy of Jamie xx — are new, but they come together in a way that is more immediate than ever before.
Credit is due to Romy and Oliver’s intertwining vocals. Though their range is somewhat limited, Romy and Oliver’s strengths as vocalists have always lied in phrasing. When Romy sings, “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong” in “Say Something Loving,” she conveys a sense of desperation and uncertainty that imbues the lyric with an emotional heft it otherwise wouldn’t have. Similarly, when Oliver sings, “Now I go out / But every beat is a violent noise” on mid-album highlight “A Violent Noise,” we hear not only the noise itself (courtesy of Jamie xx) but the impact it has on the speaker.
“A Violent Noise” showcases not only Oliver’s phrasing abilities but also Jamie xx’s production talents. On this track, Jamie xx creates an atmosphere that builds and subsides alongside Oliver’s vocals like waves. As a result, the song feels bigger than the comparably skeletal arrangements on the band’s self-titled debut, where the listener could more easily isolate guitar, bass and drums. “A Violent Noise,” which, true to its subject, takes more of a wall-of-sound approach production-wise, exemplifies Jamie’s enhanced role following the success of “In Colour.” Likewise, Jamie’s heavily manipulated Hall and Oates sample on lead single “On Hold,” signals the shift in sound that we find throughout the record. And let’s not forget the atmosphere Jamie creates on the latter half of closing track “Test Me” (reminiscent of the latter half of the “In Colour” opening track “Gosh”), which provides one of the most moving moments on the album.
But this is still an xx record, and songs like “Performance” and “Replica,” complete with more subdued production and lone guitar lines, evoke The xx of early days. And we see slight traces of Jamie xx’s more prominent production role in songs like “Crystalised” from their self-titled debut and “Reunion” off “Coexist.” Accordingly, The xx’s “I See You” is not unprecedented, although it is certainly a step forward for a band that continues to display a unique knack for communication with one another as artists. “I See You” is not a Jamie xx album, nor is it a Romy and Oliver album — it’s an album by The xx, and a good one at that.
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