The xx Expand Their Signature Minimalism With Lush Third Album ‘I See You’
From the opening track of The xx’s third album, “I See You,” you know you’re in for something different from the English dance trio. As soon as the first horns blast across “Dangerous,” it’s clear that the group has reworked its sound into something much more open and lush than the coiled, lonely sounds of the first two records. While it’s tempting to long for the elemental minimalism of the self-titled debut, “I See You” is a rewarding collection of dance-pop that channels the group’s themes of wounded love and loneliness into music that feels as open and dynamic as the early work felt intimate and hushed.
The expansion of The xx’s musical palette was in many ways inevitable. The second album, 2012’s “Coexist,” was as hushed an album as their first, but it ultimately suffered from being too similar to their debut without the simplicity, an album caught between the group’s past and their future. Jamie xx’s solo, “In Colour,” also became a sensation, digging into a dancehall-influenced, sample-laden sound that contrasted sharply with his work as part of the group. But “I See You” is a group effort, from the samples on “Say Something Loving” and “On Hold” to the reggae groove that runs underneath “Lips.” It’s clear that xx have wisely made an effort to deeply incorporate the signature sound of their most individually successful member.
Vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims are still front and center on the new record, with a handful of performances that stand among their all-time best. Their voices always complemented each other beautifully, but with “I See You” Madley Croft opens up, selling the emotions of the lyrics in a way that she never has before. “Performance” is a standout in that regard, with its jagged strings drawing out every ounce of pain in her voice for a ballad about hiding heartbreak. Conversely, Sims mostly hovers around the hushed register he’s always used, but the contrast between his low-key croon and Madley Croft’s sweeping emotion creates an engaging dynamic. The album’s two voices allow “I See You” to weave back and forth between big ballads and the quiet, ambiguous dread of songs such as “Replica,” a tale about the fear of making the same mistakes. By the time the album reaches its closer, the bitter ballad “Test Me,” The xx have excavated more possibilities from their sound than they did on their first two albums. “Test Me” itself is as haunting and quiet as the group’s early work, but it benefits greatly from following the ecstatic “I Dare You.” The xx’s trademark hush is much more powerful when contrasted with the group’s newfound love of beautiful noise.
The xx’s previous work had a tendency to wash over you, their cultivated vibe and Madley Croft’s guitar lines blending together into a beautifully delicate mood. “I See You” adds some boistrousness, and the group’s dance-oriented overhaul opens up a new world of possibility for the trio. It’s is a tight, powerful set of pop music that points a new way forward for the group.