The xx‘s music over the last eight years has been many things. The band say of their second album that it was “made in a weird, dark place for all of us”, with the three Londoners spending the entire recording process enclosed in a cocoon of moody ambience in Angel, Islington. Their first record, released even before Romy and Oliver’s teen years were behind them, took not least the band, but the entire world by surprise in finding a global audience that saw Intro rise to prominence as one of the undisputed alternative tracks of the year. If The xx‘s first album was a breakthrough, and their second was an arrival, then their latest album I See You is an affirmation from the surprising trio who, over the last four years, have done some growing up.
After comparatively modest circumstances birthing the release of their last two offerings, the situation in the lead up to I See You could not be further departed in terms of process. Texas, New York, L.A and Iceland were some of the locales that played host to the trio before they made use of a studio in Hollywood to create the record, and this – for lack of a better term – ‘coming of age’ adventure may be a large part of the reason I See You feels just so diverse. Opener Dangerous is rife with the garage infused tones seen on the band’s previous two singles, and doesn’t hold back in setting the tone for an opening five tracks on which the extensive soiree into electronica embarked upon by Jamie Smith can be liberally felt. Bright horns, syncopated drums that feel like a direct after effect from Smith’s In Colour, and a very ’90s bassline all punctuate Sim and Croft’s vocals to pave the way for the next evolution in The xx‘s “pop experiment”. Previous single Say Something Loving, along with Lips are also comfortable with their more electric, pop tendencies, with the understated bassline and high-flying single guitar on Lips perhaps serving as a model for this new combination of old and new sounds.
And flashes of the band’s former iterations do shine through on occasion – in fact, the whole record still feels distinctly xx. Themes of loneliness and vulnerability still permeate even the most club-friendly tracks, and Replica, leading us into the second half of the album, would be pure Coexist nostalgia if not for the ’80s infused synth over the top of the single, lilting guitar. It’s enough to remind us of the trio’s introversion and shock in the face of the success of their first album xx that they neither planned nor wanted.
Croft laments, in the record’s intermediary track Performance, that “I’ll put on a performance / I’ll put on a brave face”. Oddly, and for the first time, this doesn’t quite fit the band themselves. While this may have been a suitable mantra in a fledgeling career of unexpected success and nervous, shy energy, I See You truly feels like a record that signals the band finally lifting their heads and facing their success head on. And the result is as assured of its own brilliance as the rest of us have always been.
I see you comes out on January 13th. You can pre-order it here.
Words by Ben Kitto