After a five year absence, the xx returned to the spotlight with their third album I See You in 2017 (Young Turks). The band from South London initially shot to fame with the release of their Mercury Prize-winning debut album xx, and further solidified their appeal with their 2012 follow up Coexist.
With the release of their single “On Hold” in late 2016, the band made it blatantly obvious that their third album would be a sonic evolution from their previous work. Without stepping on each other’s toes musically, they made the leap from quiet, bedroom music to upbeat party-ready jams, albeit with lyrics that remain introspective in nature. I See You features Jamie Smith exerting a bigger stylistic influence on the tracks, with heavy use of Smith’s creative sampling and an expanded palette of instrumentation and textures. The album opens with blaring horns on “Dangerous”, setting the stage for the band’s most musically diverse album yet. Despite the more adventurous instrumentation on many of the tracks, the production never overshadows the band’s signature vocals or the trademark tone of Romy Madley Croft’s guitar.
However, the xx haven’t completely abandoned their hushed and vulnerable side, as evidenced by slower songs on the album like “Performance” and album closer “Test Me.” Lyrically, the album deals with more mature themes as well. Prior to the release of I See You, the band sat down with Pitchfork for a revealing interview detailing what they got up to in the interim between albums. The usually reticent band opened up about the context of certain songs on the album, as well as the inspiration behind the lyrics. On “Brave For You” Madley Croft addressed the passing of her parents, while “Test Me” was written about the struggle of maintaining the close friendship between Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. As a whole, I See You is an amalgamation of what makes the xx’s music so appealing, just with the energy dialed up a few notches.
Since the release of I See You, the xx have kept their schedules busy, embarking on a world tour that included a record-breaking seven night residency at the O2 Academy in Brixton as part of their Night +Day Festival, as well as slots at Coachella and Austin City Limits. Having watched their Coachella set, I fully expected to have fun at the concert, especially since their setlist seemed to skip over the slower songs on the new album in favor of a more upbeat vibe.
In line with the new album, their live show also proved to be an evolution from previous iterations. The band is no longer shrouded in semi-darkness during their performances, incorporating brighter lights and reflective backdrops that swivel in time to the beat. The minimal stage design and lack of graphic projections really had me focusing more on the individual band members themselves, and it was great seeing them throw themselves into the performance. Their love for the music was obvious, and their self confidence gained from all their years spent touring was evident in their stage presence.
Before the xx took the stage, opening act Sampha played a percussion-heavy set with his band, effectively drumming up enthusiasm for the main event. As the sun was setting, the xx walked on stage and kicked off the show with “Say Something Loving.” The setlist was finely tuned, with a good mix of newer songs and crowd pleasers from their previous albums. In the first half of the concert alone, they performed old favorites such as “Crystalised”, “Islands”, and “Infinity”, much to the enthusiasm of the crowd. The show was a tightly run ship, and everything was perfectly coordinated and delivered without a hitch, with barely any breathers in between songs. Midway through the set, the band slowed things down dramatically when they played “Replica” and “Performance”, but the overall tone of the night was joyous.
Perhaps the most exuberant moment of the night occurred right before the encore, when the band launched into a remix of “Shelter” that flipped the sparse ballad into a club banger that got everyone dancing. They then transitioned straight into Jamie xx’s “Loud Places” and the crowd went wild, with many people scrambling to get a photo of the rainbow colored lights that flooded the stage. As the last notes of “Loud Places” faded, the band left the stage as pre-recorded beats filled the silence, entertaining the crowd before Jamie Smith returned to the stage solo for a brief moment as he cued up the beginning of “On Hold” in what felt like a mini DJ set. After performing “On Hold” and “Intro”, the xx ended the show with “Angels” and in the blink of an eye the concert was over.
The band will be touring for the rest of 2017, making stops in Europe and Asia before heading back to North America in the fall. If you get the chance to catch them on tour this year, leave behind any preconceived notions you might have about their live shows and prepare to have a good time.
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cover © Moustache 2017
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