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How you feel about the xx’s third album depends on what attracts you to their music. Is it the minimal space they afforded much of the music they made on their first two records? Is it the awkward teenager vocal bond between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim? Is it the minimal and considered spatial production of Jamie xx? Perhaps it’s all of these things, and more?
Whichever aspect of the xx it is you care about, prepare for I See You, the band’s third album recorded in London, New York, LA Texas and Reykjavik to challenge those allegiances.
There are a number of factors affecting I See You from the off. The biggest single influence is Jamie xx’s recent solo album In Colour. That record had Jamie embrace his dancefloor urges, a confident producer used to paring things back, diving into polychrome and dance nostalgia.
I See You embraces that textured sampled approach. Opening song ‘Dangerous’ marks the card early arriving with sampled horns, percussive beats and an immediacy that was heard on Madley Croft and Sim’s contributions to In Colour but are totally new to the xx’s music. For all intents and purposes, it’s a banger.
It’s a sensibility reflected throughout I See You. Familiar elements of guitar, bass and drums are cranked up, space isn’t left to its own devices. An The Alessi Brothers’ ‘Do You Feel It’ sample intros ‘Say Something Loving’, the Norwegian vocal trio Trio Mediaeval’s ‘Just’ sample starts ‘Lips’, Hall And Oates’ provide the hook for ‘On Hold‘. Where Jamie was content to weave a tapestry from his fellow bandmates, here he involves himself in the song and its sentiments.
The recent Pitchfork cover story gives some background into the last four years for the trio, in personal terms. Madley Croft immersed herself in the pop hit factory as her band are referenced by modern producers anyway, while Sim has been addressing alcohol dependency and facing up to adulthood, which is addressed on ‘A Violent Noise’. Like ‘Loud Places’, which revelled in the night-club experience to mask the melacholy, ‘A Violet Noise’ had Sim using the night-club as a reason not to address his problems. Madley Croft sings to him “You’ve been staying out late / Trying your best to escape / I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat?,” asks Sim on ‘Replica’, a song which is the only track that has a smudge of Smith’s steel drum trademark. At the same time, I See You has much of the vulnerable beauty that made people latch onto the xx. The central run of tracks rely on restrained production touches to support Madley Croft’s soulbaring ‘Performance’ and her moving tribute to her deceased parents on ‘Brave for You’ (“And when I’m scared / I imagine you’re there / Telling me to be brave”), the latter which Smith employs a building dynamic range to parallel her emotions.
Expecting people not to grow up and remain shy teenagers into their adulthood would be unfair on their mental health and creativity. Throughout I See You, Madley-Croft and Sim sing out, a result of them growing as people. They croon with confidence. The shy dancers are swaying with less worry or self-consciousness.
Change is natural and to be encouraged. Some will be disappointed by the band’s more expansive sound, by doing so, they ditch the minimalism that defined their impact at the beginning and move closer to the sound of other performers, no longer outliers. While that is a worry in itself, four years on, Coexist feels like a retreat into what was expected of a band. I See You is the sound of that band in colour and embracing their own growth.