The xx – I See You

I found it difficult deciding what to post about first, but then had a look through my CDs and saw the shiny cover you can see above, which is of indie pop group The xx’s third album, I See You. It was released just over a month ago, and so I’ve listened to it quite a lot recently. I’ve been listening to The xx for over a year, having first heard about them from a Reddit thread about people’s favourite albums. I promptly downloaded their first album xx, and was hooked. I’ll be going to watch them live next month in Cardiff, which I’m very much looking forward to.

The xx – xx

xx was released nearly eight years ago in 2009 – it was well received and won the The xx a mercury prize the following year. All of its songs have a light texture with a minimal instrumentation primarily of electric guitar and bass, with the electric guitar put on a heavy reverb (I’ve read that they just used an amp reverb in the studio, but they use a pedal on stage) which creates the signature sound of the group. The group’s thin instrumentation has been an understandably polarising feature of their music, but I personally find that this makes it very relaxing, easy listening. As with their other albums, it has Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim sharing the vocals; who both create an enticingly shy, gloomy atmosphere against the minimal textures. The mixing of the songs isn’t brought to the centre of the listener’s attention on xx, but it still comes across as being well thought-out. Jamie Smith, or Jamie xx as he is known on stage, is the producer and percussionist of the group, and brings a recognisable sound that can be heard in The xx’s work and in his solo work: syncopated rhythms, soft synths and interesting vocal and instrumental samples.

The xx – Coexist

His influence was seen more prominently on The xx’s second album Coexist, which was released in 2012. Stylistically, the group’s second album didn’t differ heavily from their first, and instead continued to develop their existing approach. This album has more interesting rhythms, with syncopation heard in the tracks Chained and Reunion (which uses steel drums as part of the percussion, which I love), and punchy house beats on the tracks Fiction and Swept Away. The album’s mixing is generally richer, and there are more exiting textures. Coexist did seem to suffer lyrically though – I found the themes and general writing to be less inspiring than on xx.

The xx – I See You (Digital Artwork)

And now, we have The xx’s latest release – I See You. Firstly, I was wondering what they would do with their album cover and whether they would carry on with their uniform ‘X’ design – which they did. I love the cover on the physical releases, which has this blurred mirror appearance that makes it stand out against other albums when I see it in the shops. The digital cover it also very cool – a blurred image of the band posed as though they’re staring through the screen at the viewer.

I See You is set apart from The xx’s other albums – it’s more dance-able, more richly mixed, and at points it’s even fun. The instrumentation is more varied, with strings and horns making appearances, and a far wider selection of synths. The lyrics didn’t seem to pick up from Coexist, but I can forgive them for that as they make up for it in other areas.

The first track Dangerous showcases how the group has developed over the last three years: it’s one of the most upbeat songs in The xx’s repertoire, and a welcome change to the glumness of their other songs. It features a trumpet and saxophone, which have a very punchy, fanfare-like sound to them. The rhythm is also a main feature here – it has an energetic groove together with the bass line, with imitation going on between them at points. The vocals work very well in this song, and although the lyrics seem a little weak at points, it’s still very enjoyable.

The second track Say Something Loving (the album’s second single) let me down a bit, as there were moments when the vocals made me cringe – there’s a passage maybe two thirds into the song where Romy and Oliver harmonise and it isn’t quite dissonant, but it sounds very uncomfortable. I also thought the lyrics were a bit dull. However, I do like the rapid reverb on the vocals at the beginning of the song and on the guitar as it continues into the rest of the piece. The percussion sounds great as well. It’s definitely easier to appreciate this song when listening with a good pair of headphones – otherwise the vocals define the song, which isn’t nice.

The album definitely picks up from here. The next track Lips is one of my favourites, featuring vocal samples from David Lang’s Just (After Song of Songs), a beautiful chamber piece that accompanies the main vocals very well. There’s also a dampened synth pad playing chords and a descending melody that really holds the piece together. My favourite moment in the song is in the chorus when the bass line transitions from an off-beat rhythm played for part of the bar to an on-beat rhythm playing through the bar, aligning with the percussion. It’s subtle, but makes the chorus far more satisfying to listen to. The lyrics have also picked up on this track, following a common theme in their music of lust and desire.

The fourth track A Violent Noise also doesn’t let me down. It comes across as a very personal song, with Oliver taking most of the vocals. From a bit of reading around, I’ve found out that Oliver seriously struggled with alcohol earlier in the group’s career. It was putting his musicianship at risk, which is what this song seems to be about. It has a harsh synth lead that becomes harsher throughout the song, with a bit of dissonance which creates a deliberately unsettling atmosphere. It works very nicely, and is obviously referencing the lyrics/title of the song. I can’t really fault the vocals or lyrics in this track. It’s a solid ballad, with slightly restrained but very present emotions.

Left to right: Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith – Photo: The xx

It doesn’t get any happier after this – the next track Performance is even more personal, and has just Romy on vocals. The song features a set of brooding strings, that really help to emphasise the feelings conveyed in the lyrics; which are very heartfelt and far less cryptic. I’ve read that Romy has suffered a lot of losses over the years, including both of her parents; and these lyrics reflect her immediate feelings and how she tried to mask them. The texture is more sparse on this track, with a huge emphasis on Romy’s voice. As each chorus approaches, the strings (one of the violins being played by Jamie – how cool!), which provide subtle drones beforehand, begin to crescendo playing a fierce sautillé bow – followed by just Romy’s guitar accompanying her vocals on the chorus. It’s one the heavier songs on the album, but a good listen.

The next track Replica has Oliver leading the vocals, and seems to be about his struggles with trying to break away from copying the abuse of drugs and alcohol which I’ve read he was exposed to in his family home. The lyrics referencing this are well written and a highlight of the album for me. The piano synth played in this song is a good fit, and I love the looped guitar sample played at the beginning. There does seem to be a bit of an issue with the layering of Oliver and Romy’s vocals in the chorus – it sounds uncomfortable at points and reminds me of that moment from Say Something Loving. It doesn’t ruin the piece by any means, but it could’ve been avoided.

The seventh track Brave For You is another personal ballad focusing again on Romy’s losses. Whilst Performance seemed to focus on the immediate impacts and feelings of loss, this song looks more optimistically at how she came to terms with it alongside her career. The synthesiser used here has a very bittersweet sound, which gives the song a lot of its character. One of the strongest moments in this song is towards the end of the second chorus when the building guitar and synth drop out to make way for a very firm bass melody with a kick drum playing in unison. They relate very well to the feelings Romy is trying to convey here, of being determined to move forward and let go.

On Hold was the first single from the album, released back in November. I listened to it a lot when it came out, and it’s come to be my favourite song from this release. It’s very catchy, and is one of a few songs that seems to be talking about the band members’  relationships with each other. They went on Radio 1 to promote the single, and I remember Romy saying that although the trio are very close friends, they regrettably spent a lot of time apart after recording Coexist. This is also a song that showcases Jamie’s creative sampling and reminded me a lot of his solo album In Colour. It takes instrumental loops and snippets of the chorus from the 1981 Hall & Oates song I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do). Its presence in On Hold is vastly different from the original, but works very nicely alongside the vocals and instrumentation. It’s a far more welcoming song than a lot of the other songs in this album, and I think it was the best choice for lead single – it got to the top of the UK indie chart and probably reeled a lot of people in.

The penultimate track I Dare You is a very excitable, lovey-dovey track that reminds me a lot of the ballads from xx. It’s fairly obvious that the line ‘oh.. how… go on… I dare you’ is rhetorically preparing for the words ‘I love you’, but they’re never heard, even though I keep expecting it (probably because of the slow crescendo leading into the chorus). It’s an interesting use of lyrics, with a more hopeful take on the themes heard in songs like Try, Heart Skipped a Beat and Stars of heartbreak and yearning that the group is known for. It features a warm synth throughout the piece, a punchy house beat, and the classic guitar reverb The xx is known for. Altogether, although the lyrics are a little cliché at times, it’s a nice song that serves as a pleasant memento of the group’s earlier work.

The final track, Test Me, is an interesting one, tapping into a sound that The xx hasn’t really explored before. The first half has a very minimal texture, with quiet, subtle instrumentation, hushed vocals and haunting lyrics hinting at anxiety and abusive relationships . There’s a really unique synth line which sounds like a blend of horns, alongside a pure, organ-like synth in the bass – a combination that I’d love to hear more of. Halfway through, the vocals disappear, and it’s clear that Jamie has taken the floor. A building mix of additional sounds explore the melodic ideas of the first half, and the vocals are played with in various respects. There’s a slow, reverberating percussion line which builds into a more glitchy sound, and a foreign sounding vocal line that I’ve read is Jamie’s voice (which I’d also love to hear more of!). The texture and dynamics slowly build, as if there’s going to be some kind of bass-drop resolution. But there’s no resolution – the track fades into blackness, ending the record on a darker note than on their other albums, and with an unresolved feeling that seems to be very deliberate. It’s definitely the most experimental track on the album, and I’m anticipating more of their music following this sort of path in the future.

Overall, this album is a big step forward in The xx’s discography. Whilst Coexist generally followed the same formula as xx, I See You is more inventive and ambitious. Inspiration from In Colour can be heard all over it, but it’s also stylistically broader within the context of the band. The lyrics explore a wider range of themes, and are some of the most personal and heartfelt heard from the group. The instrumentation is more varied, and the mixing is more engaging than ever. The album definitely grew on me, but writing about them has helped me to appreciate each track’s individual qualities.

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