Here’s the scene: a crowded house party, well past midnight. Liquor has been flowing, maybe some illegal party favors tossed around. The lights are low and the music has faded to subtle background noise. Everyone at the party is snuggled next to a significant other, longtime partner or one-night fling, and swapping spit (or something more explicit)……except for two people. One’s standing against the wall with a solo cup in hand, the other is huddled by the fireplace. They’ve been looking at each other with passing glances the whole night, maybe have never even spoken to each before, but they want to so badly it’s killing them. They don’t know if it’s right, they don’t know if it’ll last, but the wanting is there. Even when they miss the opportunity to hold each other close, the wanting never goes away.
That scene practically caused the cellular formation that became The xx. The London trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and enigmatic producer Jamie xx have spent over seven years building scenes of longing and regret over love with sparse beats and stripped-down atmospheric R&B. While today’s music landscape is chock full of alt-R&B stars (hell, most of it is anyone on the OVO Sound label), The xx use indie rock guitars to move songs forward while still leaving space in-between to let everything breathe. Their first two albums crafted a sound like few others at the time, but there was always the sense that it could go further, something to make it fully-formed.
Right from the opening horns and stuttering jungle drum beat of “Dangerous,” the opening track to the band’s third album I See You, it sounds like The xx have found that additional x factor (pardon the pun). It must’ve helped that Jamie xx stepped out to make his own gorgeous solo album (2015’s In Colour) since his production on I See You fills more space throughout the ten tracks. Backing beats echo so consistently you can’t tell if it’s merely a sample played low. Even with the overbearing horns filling the gaps of closing track “Test Me,” he already starts building a high-pitched keyboard note to turn the atmosphere into something gothic and spooky. That atmosphere is all over I See You, from the haunting sex appeal of “Lips” with jungle drums and the vocals of Oslo-based medieval music choir Trio Mediaeval opening the song, to “Say Something Loving” slowed-down guitar chords that recall Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” with a sample from the Alessi Brothers’ “Do You Feel It?”
Then there are dance tracks, or The xx’s version of dance tracks. With the drum beat and low-key bass lines in front of a reserved horn sample, “Dangerous” sounds like Basement Jaxx with hints of soul. Lead single “On Hold” has the gall to sample Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That,” cut it up and use it for a similar purpose as the original artist. What The xx has over Hall & Oates is creating their own groovy atmosphere with handclaps and haunting synthesizers, along with Sim’s funky bass line. Croft’s guitars still have the classic echo and finger picking, but “Performance” features a more lush overtone and delicacy to the playing. What ties it all together is Jamie’s production, completing the sound of the band and amplifying it to sound big enough to fill stadiums.
Despite it’s massive sonic boost, I See You remains an intimate affair. Right from the get-go, the vocal and lyrical interplay between Croft and Sim bring the emotional heft to all ten tracks. This time around, Croft and Sim’s love story doesn’t sound like one of stability. “Dangerous” immediately sets the scene of fear (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, “Danger, danger”/I can’t make them take you under”), “Say Something Loving “ is an act of desperation to prove one’s insecurities wrong (“Were you really looking for me?/Try your best to reassure me/I wasn’t patient to meet you/Am I too needy, am I too eager?”), but “Lips” still wants whatever sweetness there once was (“My name on your lips/Your air in my lungs/Drowned in oxygen”). “Performance” and “Brave For You” feature exceptional vocal performances from Croft, maybe her finest to date. There’s an aching in her singing, something hurt but something loving. It saves songs like “Performance” from becoming entirely corny (“It is a performance/I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”).
With I See You, The xx is forming a new scene. The couple from the first scene finally made it together and they’re crazing about each other. Problem is, life got harder for the two and the relationship has strained. Nothing feels the same anymore, life’s pleasures don’t feel as good as they used to. So they look at each other, dead in the eye, and try to see how much longer the two can go on? And maybe that’s the new question to ask about The xx: now that they’ve cracked the code of their own potential, how long can they keep the momentum going? Regardless, The xx finally achieve near-perfect synthesis and it’ll be fascinating to see where their chemistry takes them next.