The xx have always been focussed on control – black-clad and minimalist, they’re the ice on the surface while endless water rushes past underneath. The band famously were reduced to rehearsing at night when writing their Mercury-nominated debut, and this was widely attributed to its inherent restraint, it’s twilight, inky, somnambulist feel.
Since then, the group have remained tied to the night. Indeed, the steps between debut album ‘The xx’ and follow up ‘Coexist’ felt sure-footed, but rather cautious; providing subtle evolution, motion that felt gradual but certainly not circumspect.
‘I See You’ is the sudden surge forward The xx need. It’s a work of incredible balance, one that provides ample space for each member’s individual talents while reinforcing their need for this group, this union to exist.
Opening cut ‘Dangerous’ perhaps most closely follows the template of Jamie xx recent solo output – those Roy Davis Jr. inflections in the horns, the subtle dancehall swagger, even the sub-low bulge resonating from the speakers. Yet it’s also directly a showcase for Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims - the vocals intertwine, the lyrics speaking of a love affair that will ultimately drive both into the depths but (for now) they’re lost in utter abandon.
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‘Say Something Loving’ addresses the desperate need for return, the longing for feelings that have dissipated. Musically, though, it finds The xx cutting themselves further adrift from their opening two LPs – the four on the floor keys, the sudden movement into that dub-like awareness of space. It feels as though The xx have deconstructed the way they work, the way they approach music; thus atomised, each member is free to pull further and further away, but this seems to curiously reinforce the trio’s foundations.
‘Performance’ is little more than guitar and voice, Romy delivering one of her most heart-wrenching soliloquies to date. Dissonant strings rise up underneath, the growing intensity broken by the merest silence, before that slender, spider-like guitar line steers a path out of the gloom.
Oliver takes the lead on ‘Replica’, with the hard-hitting lyrics warning of “turning out just like you”. Perhaps one of the album’s most pained moments, the dark is broken by the support of his band mates – Romy’s voice sits patiently underneath, her harmonies matched by those delicious keys spiralling around them.
After so much introspection, though, the sheer forward rush of ‘On Hold’ feels like a dam breaking. The xx have always been masters of control, of suspension and release, but their innate feeling of balance has rarely been so explicit – the balance between Oliver and Romy’s intertwining vocals, and the subtle but all-pervasive influence of Jamie xx.
‘I Dare You’ explores this still further. Oliver Sims dwells on the rush of chemicals, while Romy counters this with her innate romanticism - ‘I Dare You’ then, becomes the bridges between two worlds, between innocence and experience. It’s matched by the music, too, with the subtle motorik click managing to encompass both shades, a dexterity born of simplicity.
Final track ‘Test Me’ finds the group simply hanging on, offering desperation without resignation. Lyrically, it’s the moment before you reach breaking point, while musically the track dissolves into Eno-esque ambience before being re-built fragment by digital fragment, never at peace until that one final note arches into the abyss.
‘I See You’ is perhaps the bravest album of the band’s career, the one laden with the most changes, with the most prolonged journeys into the unexpected. Yet it also feels resolutely like The xx – it’s almost as though by unhooking themselves from expectations the band have found renewal.
It’s intimate and minimal, sure, but also expansive when it needs to be, switching twilight hues for something a little brighter. It’s marked by despair, for sure, but also hope; the balance of fear and possibility that abandon brings. “I couldn’t care less,” Romy admits at one point, “If they call us reckless…”
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