Album review

Indie trio The xx emerge from their own shadow with new album I See You

Band’s 2012 Coexist played it safe after their inspiring debut album, but with this latest release they venture forth with confidence in their unique sound

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 1:40pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 2:13pm

It was one of 2016’s weirder musical phenomenons: the sensation that huge chunks of the singles chart sounded oddly but irrefutably like The xx’s 2009 debut album.

It was strange, not least because the debut album was so unassuming: packed with hushed, inward-looking songs, it sounded like music that was trying to avoid catching your eye, as if it was locked in an intense, personal conversation and didn’t want to be disturbed. You might have expected it to garner critical acclaim, to win the Mercury prize, to inspire a raft of other black-clad indie bands, all of which it did.

But the notion of it exerting an influence on the kind of unashamed pop artists that tweenagers feel impelled to scream along to seemed unlikely. And yet, seven years on, the album’s fingerprints are also all over the list of 2016’s best-selling singles: you can hear its muted, echoing guitars on everything from the Chainsmokers’ Don’t Let Me Down to Shawn Mendes’ Stitches to Zara Larsson’s Lush Life.

If The xx’s debut album cast an unexpected shadow over manufactured pop, it also cast a shadow over the trio themselves: 2012’s “Coexist” had its moments, but it was audibly the sound of a band who had emerged with a sound, mood and image fully formed, now trying to work out how to move on and develop, and settling for doing more of the same, only quieter.

But somewhere in the five years between “Coexist” and its successor, they appear to have cracked the problem. Perhaps they worked out that if your singers have voices as distinctive as Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim – for two people with a remarkably understated and unshowy vocal style by modern standards, they’re immediately recognisable – it allows you to shift and change your sound without losing your identity.

From the opening moment of its opening track, Dangerous – a blast of dancehall-esque synthesised horns over a beat that marries the steady bass thud of house to the skipping snares of two-step garage – “I See You” pulls off the feat of managing to sound both exactly like The xx and unlike anything they have done before.

It’s tempting to suggest that what’s happened here is that Jamie Smith – the member of the trio with the parallel career as a DJ, remixer and dance producer – has taken more control of proceedings than previously, or at the very least, that the band have opened up their sound to the wide patchwork of musical influences found on his 2015 solo debut, “In Colour”.

Even the tracks that cling most doggedly to the sparse blueprint set out on their debut album feel richer and fuller than before: the ballad Performance and closer Test Me both keep lapsing into silence, but the former is decked out with a genuinely inventive string arrangement, where violins drone and arc behind the vocals like feedback, while latter is built around a swirl of scattered vocal samples and electronic noise that builds into a spectral, unsettling climax.

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While the album still revolves around Madley-Croft and Sim’s intimate vocals and the kind of distinctive Madley-Croft guitar lines that pop artists spent much of last year ripping off, “I See You” is noticeably more sample-driven than its predecessors: loops of vocals (in the case of On Hold, from Hall and Oates’ 1982 hit I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) abound)).

Elsewhere, there are four-to-the-floor beats chugging along at the same pace as tropical house (another genre that appears to have drawn on The xx’s reverb-heavy sound and Smith’s love of a steel-pan sample) and A Violent Noise, on which the emotional impact of Sim’s lyric about disillusionment, fear and isolation in the middle of a dancefloor is heightened not just by Madley-Croft’s brief, affecting appearance in the role of concerned friend (“I hope you silence the noise”), but also by the musical backing. An icy synthesiser melds with her distorted guitar, playing something that sounds not unlike the hands-in-the-air riff from an EDM hit echoing beatlessly around an empty club: the effect is to drain it of its euphoria and leave something strangely melancholy in its place.

The presence of a song about disillusionment, fear and isolation in the middle of dance floor should perhaps alert potential listeners to the fact that, however much their sound may have broadened, the emotional tenor of their songs remains largely the same. Despite the presence of the uncharacteristically sunlit I Dare You – an xx song that Shaun Mendes or Zara Larsson could conceivably cover, rather than just nick the sound of – no one’s going to return their copy of “I See You” to Amazon on the grounds that it’s insufficiently yearning and fragile.

But rather than seeming hackneyed, another trudge over well-trodden ground, the lyrics really hit home. You don’t need to know that Brave for You addresses Madley-Croft’s late parents to feel its emotional weight, nor do you need to be up to speed on Sim’s issues with alcohol to empathise with A Violent Noise’s weary, troubled attitude to hedonism.

Sometimes, the effect is not unlike that of an ancient disco track like Odyssey’s Native New Yorker or Jackie Moore’s How’s Your Love Life Baby? – warm, widescreen music and melodies amplifying the ache in the lyrics. Say Something Loving pits its depiction of a relationship in crisis against a lovely, rolling, dubby rhythm track and samples of bouffant-haired 70s soft-rock duo Alessi. It’s an old trick, but, like the rest of “I See You”, it really works.