Seven years on, and the muted luminescence of UK indie-pop band The xx's still-remarkable debut album has well-and-truly trickled down through the pop music strata. Whispered vocals, ringing guitars and muffled drums have become business as usual, so where do The xx fit in now? It's surely a question that the band asked themselves after the frustratingly insular retreat of their 2012 album Coexist, and suffice to say, not many really expected them to come back as strong as they have.
I See You contains the band's most extroverted music yet. That's not to say that this is raucous party music, though the thumping kick drum and dub-inspired horns of the opener "Dangerous" will certainly get feet moving, but The xx have expanded the sonic palette and dynamics of their sound while still maintaining the atmosphere of quiet intimacy that made them so special in the first place. In 2015, The xx member Jamie xx released the stunning "Loud Places," featuring his bandmate Romy Madley-Croft on vocals, which played like a club track for introverts. The band have taken that vibe and run with it.
First single "On Hold," contains one of the band's most immediate melodies and striking, shining production that employs a mutating sample from Hall & Oates' classic "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)." Flurries of locomotive drums buoy one of the band's distinctive duets between Madley-Croft and her tenor counterpart Oliver Sims, and along with the rhythmic bass and chasms of space over which the track floats, everything gels into a thoroughly pleasing and utterly memorable piece of pop suffused with the band's distinctive tenderness.
Less adventurous tracks like the delicate "Replica" and the kick-drum-and-handclaps of "I Dare You," take longer to make an impression, but still find the band deploying their bag of tricks in thoughtful ways. Where the album stumbles slightly is in tracks like "Performance," and "Brave for You," which are stripped down to little more than resonant melodies and hovering ambience. While they are both beautiful pieces, and the latter indulges in some undulating texture and dynamics, they slow down the pace of the record which is otherwise compelling from the beginning.
The record's opening trio carry a large amount of its weight. The aforementioned staccato horns of "Dangerous" rub up against a garage-inspired beat that almost seems to pirouette alongside the anthemic melody, leading perfectly into the pulsating and bright single "Say Something Loving," which battles thrillingly with an undercurrent of melancholy. On the sensual "Lips," which follows, hip-hop, house, tropical vibes and chamber pop collide in the form of a muscular beat, slithering synths, woody tuned percussion and a ghostly choir, making for what may be the finest track here.
The brassiness of the opener recurs in the final track, "Test Me." Here, instead of honking, the horns shimmer, colouring a nebulous and melancholy track that rises to a lovely cacophony of electronic percussion and disembodied voices. It feels like a culmination of the record's striking, honest and lovely innervisions. Defiantly, The xx have broken new ground for themselves and transcended the weight of influence that may have crushed them otherwise. It's not perfect, but it's real.
I See You is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.