Like sunlit clouds, the haunting nebulousness of echoing silence and skeletal textures that characterised The xx’s first two albums have been illuminated by the brassier tones, luxuriant production, and easy dance-pop clarity of I See You. Even in the bright, ringing openness, there’s still a shimmering kind of uncertainty and fragility; the band appears on the metallic mirror of the album cover, but their figures are distorted and blurry. Jamie xx furnishes the bulk of the soundscape on most songs, with his debut solo record In Colour’s lush, variegated electronic palette swathing what would be the black, empty space between voice and beat on Coexist. His strength really lies in textural and tonal variety, sculpted with an exquisite sense of balance. Lead single ‘On Hold’ is absolutely lovely; its various samples and melodies fade in and out, layering and building for calibrated punchiness and, in the distance, barely within reach of conscious listening, gliding celestial tones sear like falling comets.
Opener ‘Dangerous’ even more squarely grounds itself as a dance track, with Oliver Sim’s dark, perpetual bass groove offset by brassy riffs. It’s good, but lyrically dull, and pans out perhaps a little too predictably. ‘Say Something Loving’ pales as the other single, and not even Sim’s and Romy Croft’s singing in unison can save the jarring awkwardness of its musical incoherence. Familiar breathiness and rawness are a welcome presence in the middle tracks, decorated with a whole host of startling instrumental effects. Sim’s solo in the questioning, introspective ‘A Violent Noise’ reminds us of the band’s unique speech-like charm—carefully-weighted delivery punctuated by silence or stillness – that makes their music so emotive in its simplicity. Croft-fronted ‘Performance’ is nuanced perfection, voice quivering close to the point of breaking; whisper-soft, yet always clear. Violins and cellos similarly emote in accompaniment, half-soulful, half-tortured – get ready for goosebumps at their gigs.
The experimental and emotional triumph of the album, though, is the final track, ‘Test Me.’ The whole band sings, but Croft is foregrounded: “Test me, see if I break / tell me this time you’ve changed / test me, see if I stay / how could I walk the other way?” In the four years preceding I See You, the band members led busy, separate lives, occupied with personal struggles and pursuits. This tender song is a testament to their relationship’s resilience; it could be Croft expressing her frustration with Sim’s addictions, but the fact that they all sing suggests a collective, harmonious acceptance; echoing the lucid honesty of the album title. Curiously enough, a soaring, whistle-like synth emerges above the choral sonorities, strikingly similar to the one in ‘Gosh’ (the first track of In Colour), as if some melodic spirit of Jamie is hanging over the song. The great, sweeping waves of sound swell to collect a spattering of sonic flotsam – a tapping snare, a tinkering piano, glitching voice samples – all shuddering as if trying to recover from a good cry, before fading out.
The success of I See You’s departure from minimalistic indie may be uneven, with disappointing clichés creeping into the lyrics and regularity of the beats, even lacking the sheer genius and imaginative complexity of In Colour. But where The xx have reapplied the intelligence with which they manipulate sound in space, and now with more material than ever, they breathe new life into themselves.