Young Turks, 2015
The best dance music has a beating heart at its centre – a gripping emotional core that shines through with every pulsating beat or ripple of melody. Jamie xx, one of the members of UK avant-pop combo The xx has been mining that core for years, and his proper debut album In Colour is a perfect representation of what he does so well.
In 2011 he released We’re New Here, which was essentially a full remix album of legendary soul poet Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. It was remarkable the way that Jamie xx’s productions deftly brought out all the pain, joy, anger and comfort in the words of a man nearly three times his age. It’s a similar approach to what he does on In Colour, but here he is conjuring all the feeling himself and his compositions are more laser-focused than ever before.
Like the music of fellow sound explorers Caribou and Jon Hopkins, the material on In Colour is nominally dance music, but with its tropes subtracted or recombined in unexpected ways. Take, for example, “Stranger in a Room,” which appears in the quiet heart of this record and features a heartfelt vocal from Jamie’s xx bandmate Oliver Sim. With its skittering arpeggios, the song suggests a beat that never materialises, forcing the listener to latch onto the gorgeous melody and Sim’s words.
Many of the tracks here don’t feature the sky-cracking crescendos that we expect from club music, but every piece of the puzzle plays a role in revealing the whole. “Obvs” is built around Jamie xx’s signature tuned percussion – steel drum and vibes mostly – riding a solid, but almost lackadaisical beat before leading into the album’s most low-key section.
In Colour is sequenced to provide a full spectrum of experiences; with opener “Gosh” it’s the sweaty noise of the club, with the short ambient sketch “Just Saying” it’s stepping outside for a smoke. The album starts off dark and a little grimy, but by the time it ends with the rapturous stretch from single “Loud Places” to the uplifting slipstreams of closer “Girl,” it feels as if the record has taken us on some kind of implacable emotional journey all in under forty-five minutes.
What ties all these disparate things together though, is the power of Jamie xx’s signature aesthetic. His productions are always tight and economical, almost skeletal, and while these are the first of his songs to feature actual vocals other than textural spoken samples, they never become cluttered.
The exceptionally beautiful “Loud Places,” featuring The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, uses a gospel choir that seems to rise into the song on hydraulics and “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” features a doo-wop sample and energetic turns by polarising rapper Young Thug and dancehall artist Popcaan, but we never lose sight of the key elements that make the songs distinctively Jamie xx.
If you listen to In Colour waiting for a beat to drop or waiting for some kind of almightly crescendo, you will be disappointed. With this record, Jamie xx proves once again that electronic music can be subtle, building his lush and deeply affecting soundscapes from the ground up. It’s the kind of artistic statement we’ve been waiting for from him and it’s just about perfect.
In Colour is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.