I See You finds London-based trio The xx at a crossroads. After two records of subtle, R&B influenced indie pop, the group’s third album embraces some sweeping changes, but not as wholeheartedly as you might have expected from our first taste of the new project.
The record’s first single “On Hold” which dropped late last year appeared to announce some fairly pronounced changes over at xx HQ. Gone completely was Romy’s airy guitar work, replaced by thumping-bass and club beats, all over one of the most deliberate and pronounced samples of either the group, or producer Jamie xx, has ever worked with. The announcement appears a slight red-herring - while sample work finds its ways into a few of the tracks on I See You such “Lips” or “Say Something Loving," “On Hold” is by far the most dramatic example. While second single “Say Something Loving” begins with an Alessi Brothers sample, it occupies a small, tidy space at the beginning of the track. What follows on “Say Something Loving” is a more successful model of what I See You sounds like, which appears more an experimentation with minimalism and maximalism, and how they fit into the xx’s model of songcraft, rather than a pronounced sonic shift.
Perhaps I See You is better for it. Contrasting the danceable club beat of “Dangerous” (a track seemingly ready for alternative radio airplay and FIFA title screens) with the minimal, gorgeous “Performance” leads to the record feeling like a dynamic, fluid piece where the band both makes note of its stylistic roots while placing feelers out towards its future. By doing so, it avoids the most glaring of sins of their sophomore effort Coexist, which fell into the Room on Fire sphere of music criticism - like the Strokes record, Coexist didn’t necessarily fail on the part of its songwriting, but refused to make room for the more pronounced ideas that I See You embraces fully.
Along with the advances in sample-craft, thank in part to Jamie xx’s work on 2015’s dazzling In Colour, Romy also adds to the dynamism of I See You thanks to advances in her vocal work. No better is this present than in “Brave For You," a tender and slow ballad that demonstrates the best qualities of the record in full. Occupying the sole vocal part, Romy experiments with breathy, lonesome tone that adds perfectly to the song’s thematic content focused on familial loss. “Brave For You” stands as one of the most effective examples as well of The xx’s mastery of minimal lyricism. Romy and Ollie have never tried to overdue their words, and instead choose carefully worded, strong bits of humanity to make their love songs shine through. The simple association of courage and kinship feels relatable and tender in some of the most concrete terms the group has ever produced. “Brave for You” also demonstrates the album’s tension between minimalism and the maximalistic styles of In Colour. The track shifts between some of the most quiet and intimate moments, with huge crescendos in both instrumentation and volume that sound more like post-rock than indie R&B. This moment, all drums and reverb-soaked guitar, is one of the most exciting of I See You and should be a live highlight on the group’s upcoming touring cycles.
While Ollie has never been as diverse or interesting a vocalist as Romy, they still combine together for some interesting melodic moments, as often tracks on the record seem to hinge themselves on whether their melodies achieve the intimacy and dynamism that the more danceable tracks sometimes lack. While “Dangerous” possess a strong groove, the vocal melody’s relatively uninteresting journey leaves the listener feeling somewhat hollow, unready to embrace an xx that just wants to write indie club tracks. But on the sexy, intense “Lips," Romy sells the track so effectively through her doubled vocal-and-guitar work that the track would feel stale without them, like a Sade song without the Sade.
Where the record feels the weakest is where one of the extremes of style is embraced in totality. The record’s muted final third ends with “Test Me," easily the album’s weakest track, which is pallidly quiet and lacking tension that another quieter track like the noted “Brave for You” embraces in full. The ambient section feels far more suited for a brief outro than nearly half a track, and it feels an inappropriate ending for an album that represents the band’s growth in ability to negotiate between polar extremes of instrumentation, melody and energy. But when the band embraces these ideas most clearly, such as a track like “A Violent Noise," which bursts out of total silence with blast of synthesizers and guitar, the band feels so alive and ready to push themselves into previously unheard places. It remains to be seen until record four where the xx will move next, but this moment sees a relatively happy occupancy at the space in-between stylistic choices, happily dialoguing about where the band is, ready to experiment, try, and of course, love.