After a four year hiatus, “The xx” are back with their third studio album, “I See You.” Their rise to the top in 2009 after releasing their self-titled debut album “xx” was so quick that the band did not expect to top the charts. Their 2012 album “Coexist” was well received, moving beyond the calm and atmospheric style they employed in their debut album. It’s been a while since the release of “Coexist” and the three members of the group have had time to grow as musicians. The English trio has a lot going for them: Romy Madley Croft’s guitar lines did a great deal; there were single notes carving deep emotion with Oliver Sim’s songwriting setting a stage for sorrow and loss with vocals conveying anguish. Jamie xx’s flawless ability to find rhythms with his production complemented the emotion of the other two. Jamie xx’s samples form the backbone of the album, allowing them to move into a more techno-style that would not have been possible with the band’s previous guitar, bass, and programmed-percussion style.
The group unveiled “On Hold”, the lead single to their new album, in November. The song gave the first impression that the album to come would have an elegant, sample-driven foundation with a thumping bassline— but the album opener “Dangerous” goes past that assumption. A fast tempo with hard drums in “Dangerous” shows the band stepping out of their comfort zone, which, honestly, is great. This newfound sound suits them, while sticking to their roots lyrically and emotionally.
“Performance” and “Brave for You” bring back the classic “the xx” vibe— an atmospheric and relaxed melody with short strings of Croft’s guitar and a lot of silence. Roughly one third of the album has melodic arrangements similar to this, while the rest makes use of samples of heavy layers of synthesizers and sequencers. For instance, “Dangerous” starts with a loud horn and “A Violent Noise” has a cluster of notes that explode at the exact right moment— there’s something about Jamie xx’s production that suits the emotional arcs of each song.
The defining feature of the album are the voices of helplessness and fear; “the xx” are far from their original indie-pop style of their debut days, but they maintain a connection to those times through their vocals and lyrics. The narrative of the songs is are interesting; the story of a constant war between how they think the world perceives them and how they’re really feeling inside. For example, Croft sings about keeping up appearances on “Performance”, giving the illusion that she is feeling alright when in reality, she isn’t happy. All the emotional wrestling in the album—interior versus exterior, reality versus fantasy— sketches just how harsh the world is in the band’s eyes, with songs like “Performance” and “Replica” displaying their inner thoughts.
As an album, “I See You” has the same seamless completeness of their debut album— a smooth object with no visible edges. That being said, each individual song offers more meaning to the album, adding to the theme of helplessness, hinting at what’s to come in the following song, and the closing song, “Test Me”, ties the album together beautifully. The closing song’s production is incredible— a simple masterpiece that moves the narrative while suggesting an unspoken strength that might have been there all along throughout the album.