In the eight years since The xx debuted their self-titled album, their mark on music has been as understated yet undeniable as their music. The modestly guitar-driven spine of their first album fit snugly in a time when the elusive “indie rock” was the primary non-pop genre, while critics were floored by the restrained channeling of R & B, dance, and electronic influences the young band displayed. Time would go on to prove that the subdued electronic, dance-infused R & B—continued in The xx’s sophomore album Coexist—was the sound of the future, becoming a common production aesthetic of pop, electronic, and the music heard at all of the trendy stores in your local mall.
With the release of I See You, The xx is letting their hair down a bit. Immediately on the first song, the horn-laden “Dangerous,” the listener is taken further down paths that were only hinted at on past albums. The song, with its house-lite bass line and driving low-end percussion, plays like a dance-remix of older works of The xx, a characteristic undoubtedly owing to band member Jamie Smith’s solo career as an electronic artist under the name Jamie xx. This album shows that The xx has an acute awareness of trends in the larger context of pop music. However, the less-is-more sonic philosophy of the band is still chief, and songs like “A Violent Noise” build to a point where a stadium-filling bass drop seems inevitable, but it never comes, as if on principle.
Lyrically, I See You continues The xx’s legacy of keeping it simple: desperate, youthful, and lovelorn passages are presented in the alternating female-male vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, respectively. But with the music’s fleeting nature—never committing to going as big as it could and never adding a layer that isn’t necessary—these familiar themes become far more resonant. Lines like “Since you stopped believing, I’ve had to put on my own show,” in the song “Performance,” are given space to sit, be processed and then be processed again—a powerful and effective method that is used throughout the album.
There is no grand reinvention of The xx on I See You, instead—under the direction of Jamie xx—a more free flowing and liberal use of inspirations and methods that previously would have sat on the sideline. The gaps between what the listener hears and what he or she feels is narrower than on past works, but is still present as a byproduct of the intentionally sparse compositions and production. A universal yearning—emotional and spiritual— is revealed in this approach. I See You recognizes that humanity is just as moved by what is left to the imagination as it is by what is experienced; the sneeze that never comes; the love that could have been; The xx. (Young Turks)