Being met with both critical acclaim and success on the charts since their breakout debut record xx, The xx have always seemed to me to be an interesting case study for the direction that much popular music seems to be going in. Aesthetically, the band marry indie pop sensibilities with a minimalistic approach and, credit where credit is due, they seem to have refined a sound and image that has won over fans of a myriad of different genres. The simple basslines and rhythmic patterns around which many of the band’s songs are constructed take inspiration from various styles of indie and electronic music and the uncomplicated guitar melodies and vocal lines from Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft are reminiscent of dream pop at times. The resulting concoction seemingly retains a distinct dose of pop appeal that has seen the band’s continuing success into this, their third album, I See You. Contrary to the consensus amongst critics, I personally found the material on the band’s last two albums to range from passable to underwhelming. The songs often felt underwritten as opposed to deliberately minimalist, and Sim and Croft are unfortunately not very strong singers, which is emphasised by the weak vocal melodies they provided for most of these songs. Overall, I just found their attempts at stripped back indie pop to be woefully forgettable and, at the worst of times, quite hard to stomach in their entirety, largely as a result of the subpar vocal performances.
Nevertheless, after hearing the first single from their latest effort, On Hold, I was surprised to hear what I believe to be the best track from The xx to date, and the first that I’ve found myself enjoying. For a start, when compared to the airy and somewhat ambient sound of their last album, On Hold provides a pretty solid groove that is one of the most distinctly dance-inspired tracks The xx have put out to date, largely as a result of the sample of Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do), which is incorporated fittingly into the mix. Jamie xx’s production on this cut is particularly good and he seems to have shown that the success of his debut solo project, In Colour, has trickled over into his approach to production on I See You. When going into this album having just heard On Hold, I was unsure as to whether or not this track would be the only one of its kind amongst the rest, with the other tracks sounding like more of the same from The xx. Fortunately, other cuts on this new album feature some pretty decent danceable beats. The opening song Dangerous features a pretty great groove, and the vocal performance from Sim and Croft, whilst still not as strong as I would like, certainly feels like an improvement from their previous albums. Croft’s vocals have a somewhat soulful sound to them, and the pair retain an element of chemistry as they sing together on the hook. As an opener, it left me with a good impression and slightly high hopes that the band had matured and looked to move away from the dull and often unimaginative compositions on their previous two albums.
Whilst some of these tracks do indeed give me the impression that the band are moving forward, there are others that feel stuck in an awkward purgatory between the sounds of their last two albums and the more developed approach that a lot of the tracks from this album give off. The song I Dare You seems to get off to a decent start, with a steady beat and a soft pop vocal melody from Sim, and the atmospheric guitar that comes in elevates the verse before the refrain kicks in, for which a simple, heavily-reverbed vocal line pushes itself into the forefront. Unfortunately, whilst the general sound of this track is relatively nice, the way in which it progresses feels rather colourless, with various instrumentation being added and taken away from the mix during the song’s runtime whilst the vocals stay largely the same. This is a similar issue as to what I had with The xx’s previous two albums, in that a song would be founded on a decent, or sometimes rather weak, idea that would remain much the same throughout its duration, leaving them often feeling unfinished rather than minimalist.
In a lot of ways, the band seem to have progressed technically, in the sense that the production is the best it has ever sounded on an album from The xx, and the vocals are stronger than they ever have been, although they still have their weak points. At the very least, whilst the tracks from the band in the past tended to have very feeble and forgettable vocal melodies, some of the tracks on here carry rather good tunes in the vocals, such as on Performance, featuring only Croft singing. Her stirring voice alone makes the track stand out to me, but also this track is much more the brand of minimalism that goes over rather well for the group. The simple guitar pattern that backs up Croft’s singing is nothing special, but what is rather appealing about the timbre of this track is the creative use of strings. The violin on this track looms in the background when it first comes in, simply holding root notes, before a quick crescendo and an abrupt stop before moving on to the next passage. For the final verse, the strings provide the song with a sense of climax, which is something that a lot of tracks from the band in the past, and even still on this record, have lacked.
All in all, I See You is somewhat of a mixed bag as a result of, for instance, the slight progression towards a more developed sound that is worked into these songs, but that is also sometimes competing with a few of the bad habits that the band have picked up on their previous two projects. Nonetheless, this is certainly my favourite album from The xx thus far, and it’s the first that I have come out of with a more positive attitude than negative, although I still retain mixed feelings for the most part. This project is indicative of further improvement for the group in the future, and I wish for them to develop as an act as much as they have between I See You and Coexist, for the results could be fantastic.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10