Niches can be a dangerous thing in the music business. It’s all good if one has settled into a particular niche, but it could be career-threatening if one cannot move out of it. That’s what The xx could have inflicted upon themselves. After an absolute goldmine of a first album, championing minimalistic indie-pop songs, which found admirers from Florence and the Machine to Shakira, they went with a much sparser sound for their second album, Coexist. Sonically speaking, it was a superior album to the first, yet the lyrics were one-dimensional, and furthermore, they backed themselves to a corner, with the fans unsure which way they will head next.
Realizing this, they decided to go slow for their third album, perhaps hoping to find a foothold to base their album on. Jamie xx did absolutely that, releasing his much acclaimed debut album In Colour which featured bandmates Oliver Sim and Romy Croft. Its sound reflects in I See You, immediately apparently in the opening track Dangerous which starts off with an array of horns, a departure from anything that they’ve ever done. This new, brave direction inspires Oliver and Romy, with the kind of freedom in their voices never heard from them before. Lyrically, they’ve also received a shot in the arm, leaning towards a totally new direction of narration.
Sampling is a new element introduced in their music, ranging from artists such as Alessi in Say Something Loving to Trio Mediæval in the Carribean-tinged Lips. It’s a testament to the production chops of Jamie, who has come a long way from the rudimentary, simplistic layers of the first album. Themes from previous albums are something of a recurrence here, with Oliver, who previously addressed his disenchantment with the partying lifestyle on Stranger in a Room, explores it further in A Violent Noise. Replica is their rockiest effort yet, a mid-tempo song driven by Oliver’s lopping bassline. When the steel drums blare out during the chorus, instead of Caribbean joy, there’s only fear and trepidation about the group repeating their parents’ mistakes.
The group opens up new avenues in their songwriting, especially Romy. Brave for You is the first time that she has opened up about her parents’ death. “I will be brave” is repeated throughout the song and assures her parents that she will explore new horizons for them. The album’s lead single, On Hold samples Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do) and safe to say, it’s their strongest single since Island. It’s explosive brilliance, like most of this album. I Dare You will prove to be a hit for the festival sing-a-longs. Test Me provides a sort of catharsis for Romy, who vents at Oliver for his carelessness over the last few year, due to Oliver struggling with alcoholism thus setting Romy off. It’s a revelatory moment and provides much-needed closure in their lives.
This has been an exercise in finding self-belief and self-discovery for a band who one had assumed that they’ve given up. The sound that they’ve championed has become increasingly ubiquitous, with acts such as London Grammar, Jack Garratt and Låpsley taking it into the mainstream, while James Blake, their contemporary, had overtaken them and became THE purveyor. Coupled with the factor that they had become disillusioned with each other, it’s seemed that they would die a slow, painful death. They’ve roared back and how. Well “roared back” would’ve been the wrong phase. However, they’ve exploded back into our collective consciousness and we wouldn’t want it to happen any other way.
Tracks to Listen – Dangerous, Lips, Replica, On Hold.