The November election results remain an unsettling reality, especially as Donald Trump’s title of the 45th President mocks millions of voters who believed their country to be a shelter of progressive thinking. Severed in half was the U.S.’s most disturbed lot of citizens; some lengthily expressed their vehement frustration, while others couldn’t utter anything more than the word impossible. Impossible, that such an offensive character – one who flaunts his racism, sexism, anti-environmentalism, and general narcissism – was selected to represent the American populace. Even more impossible, that the American populace allowed for it to happen. Suddenly there was an understanding that solace could not be found in a blemished democracy, but rather in the people’s reaction to it.
Long-invested in this belief are some of today’s celebrity musicians – let’s not forget that while most folks plan to keep YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” on repeat during the next four years, the anthemic hip-hop single was released back in March 2016, when the thought of Trump winning more than the Republican nomination was laughable. Yet, as disappointment began to expand beyond the nation’s borders in November, loving sentiments for those most threatened by Trump’s administration – people of color, the LGBTQ community, women – flowered in the hearts of concerned artists worldwide. Among those artists was one of this generation’s most successful indie pop acts, The xx.
It was pure chance that the UK outfit had scheduled a sunny resurgence – consisting of a release date for then upcoming I See You and its lead single “On Hold” – on November 10, just two days after Trump’s victory. But this coincidence was also an opportunity to address the greying climate. “We know these are uncertain times and we hope the joy & love we found making the record will get out into the world, in however small a way,” the group stated on social media. With these small, yet seamless 139 characters, The xx’s fans understood two things: that Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith stood in solidarity with America’s most affected communities, and that The xx – known for their minimalist aura – probably hadn’t much changed in their four-year absence.
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I See You – The xx
I See You (1/13/2017 via Young Turks) is the ensemble’s latest album that, in a myriad of ways, reflects The xx we’re so familiar with: atmospheric and bashful. And for any other pop group with eight years’ worth of music floating around, those qualities are likely to become exhausting around the half-decade mark.
However, The xx is not the kind of pop group to force-feed their fans with yearly releases that took a few half-hearted studio sessions to record. So although I See You showcases an acquainted sound that could drift from evocative to labored, it’s also only The xx’s third full-length, and for that reason, the album’s prominent flaws are better labeled as growing space. But this is not to say that The xx hasn’t come a long way since their 2009 debut album, on which sleepy harmonies and stripped down production provided a pleasing quietness that bordered insipidity. The latter half of xx’s 38 minutes had droopy-eyed listeners hovering over the fast-forward button, and in retrospect, it’s manifest that the 20-year-olds’ infamously shy and apprehensive personalities were leashing their potential as musicians. Three years later the trio loosened the leash, and from that decision – conscious or not – came Coexist, a sophomore record that was equally atmospheric, yet livelier than its predecessor. It was on this project that Jamie Smith worked alone, experimenting with the muffled beats, steel drums and heavier, club-inspired basslines that defined his commended debut solo album as Jamie xx, In Colour (2015). And while it was released before The xx retreated to the shadows, Coexist’s blend of bright and bold gently suggested what to expect on I See You four years later.
Watch: “On Hold” – The xx
Still, it’s impossible to say the band’s third LP is an improved copy of their second – and that’s a magnificent thing. Although I See You maintains The xx’s beloved candor, it also embraces a sonic extroversion that Croft, Sim and Smith regrettably shied away from for too long. With the beauty of older releases – gentle harmonies, relevant confessions and haunting minimality – twinkles the record’s treasures, including “On Hold” which doubles as a lead single and The xx’s most priceless cut yet. The track’s chorus is indebted to Hall and Oates’ 1981 chart-topper “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” which Smith warps beyond recognition, proving that when approached with talent and originality, sampling itself is an art. And a snippet of a forgettable Alessi Brothers’ track introduces ears to the early chorus and looped guitar picking of “Say Something Loving,” the record’s second single.
On paper, the choice to promote I See You with borrowed music reads questionably unimaginative, however, the quality of production on both songs reminds speculators that Smith’s sampling never fails to supplement the depth of a track, whether it’s his own (under the Jamie xx moniker), or The xx’s. Indeed, “Say Something Loving” continues to impress, as Croft and Sim’s vocals rise over layers of enveloping percussion, while the lyrics (Were you really looking for me?/Try your best to reassure me/I wasn’t patient to meet you/Am I too needy, am I too eager?) spotlight the duo’s ability to capture joy as affectively as gloom.
Listen: “Say Something Loving” – The xx
Yet, when it comes to poetry, I See You is far from perfect, re: “Dangerous,” the album’s opening track, on which even startling, grandiose horns fail to distract from lyrics (‘Cause I couldn’t care less/If they call us reckless/Until they are breathless/They must be blind) that belong in the CD booklet of a boy band’s 1999, Max Martin-indebted pop album. There’s also an unexpected clandestineness to the song – thanks to a combination of heavy bass, lashing drums and awful poeticisms – that would fit embarrassingly well on the soundtrack of a poorly received romantic spy thriller film. “Dangerous” is a respectable exploration of new sounds for The xx, but because I See You is bubbling with songs of both greater lyricism and production, the decision to use the song as an introduction seems overly ambitious, if not completely unnatural – I See You is, in fact, more cohesive without. Contrasting the unfortunate memorability of “Dangerous” are the album’s underrated gems, one being “Replica.” This is a dreamy, interpretive cut let by Sim’s tenor (Mirroring situations, accurate imitation/Do I watch and repeat?/ They all say I will become a replica/Your mistakes were only chemical) as steel drums shimmer over crisp, wordless croons. And in the record’s last minutes is “I Dare You,” a dance track that not only demonstrates Croft and Sim’s vocal compatibility, but balloons into a unique climax of handclaps, airy guitars and metallic echoes.
On this latest album, there are plenty of moments where The xx abandon their older sound in exchange for the lushness of increased volume. Still, emotional, yet sleepily forgettable cuts like “Brave for You,” “Performance” and “Test Me” reveal that The xx refuse to entirely let go of the classic silence they introduced to the indie scene eight years ago. The question then arises: are The xx stubborn, or simply faithful to their fans that fell for – and can’t get over – the group’s decade-old minimalism? I See You is group’s best release to date, but it’s just not the kind of record to leave one thinking, it really can’t get better than this. And as they’ve consistently left something to be desired with each release, The xx seem to prefer baby steps over adult strides.
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cover: The xx © Laura Coulson