Questions remain on the vibrant ‘I See You’
Adam Ramos | Monday, January 23, 2017
It’s difficult to listen to today’s top pop hits without hearing the influence of The xx. After the release of their epochal self-titled debut in 2009, the London-based electronic trio helped usher in a new archetype for pop songs. On their debut, The xx proved they could trade exuberance for subtly without sacrificing the punch of a pop hit. Today’s crop of generic hit-makers continues to borrow the sparse basslines, haunting layered vocals and crisp drum loops of “xx” even as its creators trudge forward and continue to experiment with their sought-after sound.
Yet, as is common with overnight successes, The xx failed to fully capitalize on their unexpected and immediate popularity. The group’s sophomore effort of 2012 “Coexist” featured similarly sparse tracks and intimate songwriting, but ultimately lacked the immediacy and vigor of its predecessor.
The next major success for The xx came from an unexpected place: 2015’s “In Colour,” the critically lauded solo album by Jamie xx (James Thomas Smith), the group’s innovative producer. Stepping out from the shadows, Smith excelled with sample heavy “In Colour” by briefly summarizing the very best of London’s diverse dance halls into a cohesive auditory joyride. As the success of “In Colour” began to lull, Smith returned once again to his childhood mates for the third installment of The xx. Released earlier this year, “I See You” is a strong effort for the group, adopting a more warm and vibrant palette, but ultimately fails to make an overwhelming case for the necessity of the group as a whole, in light of Smith’s solo success.
The very first sound of “I See You” is a chorus of horns on opener “Dangerous.” It’s not until the gritty bassline and muted drum loop kick in that it’s apparent the xx are behind the track. The horns are telling: Smith is tired of the shadows, and what follows only strengthens this point. Many of the record’s tracks are some of the brightest and lushest xx tracks to date, deeply recalling “In Colour.”
Throughout the album, Smith finds new and inventive ways to introduce warmth and vibrancy in The xx sound. The first single “On Hold” features a unique Hall and Oates sample, as Romy Madley Croft’s sweet reverbed guitar bounces in the background. Interesting string arrangements become poignant focal points on both “Performance” and “Brave for You,” two of the album’s most emotionally sharp tracks. “Lips” is warm through sensuality as a galloping beat accompanies an icy vocal sample, chanting “just your voice.” While each song on “I See You” has the signature xx feel, minor innovations on Smith’s end ensure the latest release never bores — unlike “Coexist.”
While vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim may not possess tremendous depth or range, the emotional and powerful chemistry between the two makes up the difference. Even though love and intimacy continue to be the main areas of lyrical inspiration for Sim and Madley Croft, in “I See You” the two explore uncharted depths. Contemplating the deaths of her parents for the first time ever in song, Madley Croft admits in “Brave for You,” “There are things I wish I didn’t know / I try my best to let them go.” Madley Croft’s vulnerability, which has always been her strength, is even more powerful in the new context. Sim finds new inspiration through his public issues with alcohol, lamenting on the album standout “Replica,” “Your mistakes were only chemical/ Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”
Despite the growth from both Madley Croft and Sim, one wonders about the future of Jamie xx. In a time when producers are becoming more and more successful on their own, it is easy to envision Smith reaching new heights with Jamie xx via additional guest vocals, more sampling variety and a greater freedom to play with song structures. While “I See You” accomplishes its goals, the sense that the group is still continuing to coast off the spectacular success of their debut continues to linger in the periphery, a negative quality regardless of how much the popular music sphere owes to it.
Artist: The xx
Album: “I See You”
Label: Young Turks
Tracks: “On Hold,” “Replica,” “Lips”
If You Like: Jamie xx, Hot Chip, Crystal Castles