Few chart-topping groups today are fronted by a duo of male and female vocals. Even fewer of these duos and fellow band members, I suspect, have been close friends since secondary school – and beyond. And yet this seems to be an appropriate history for a group as intimate as The xx, who this week released their first LP since 2012, the mystically named I See You.
Three albums in, it’s easy to spot a distinguishable signature with this group. Jamie ‘xx’ Smith’s gentle yet powerful and rhythmic electronic instrumentals, perfectly partnered with the soft vocals of Romy Madley-Croft and the deep, smooth-singing Oliver Sim shine through once again on this long-awaited release from the alternative, dream-pop favourites, who sing breezily but leave a deep impression on the listener.
In recent interviews, the group have spoken of the four-year break between their second and third albums, a break which saw Smith delve further into producing and releasing his solo house album in 2015, In Colour, and developments all-round in maturity, love, and loss. It’s as if this album has been coming for a while, and finally the group have found the confidence to make it, which is clear from the off in opening track ‘Dangerous’, which launches into brassy notes and house percussion amidst reflecting lyrics from Madley-Croft and Sim, including the powerful “you’ll have been my favourite mistake”. Some might have doubts about The xx’s suitability in performing in larger venues on their upcoming tour, but this first track shakes off any of those worries.
‘Performance’ blurs the lines of performing as an artist and performing as a character
‘Say Something Loving’ follows up, instrumentally perhaps more familiar to fans of the group’s earlier work. In terms of subject, the group have previously spoken of their attempt at being accessible, resulting in the use of ‘I’ and ‘you’, universally understood and related to (especially given the title of the album); this is evident in track three. ‘Lips’ features a melody of electronic beating notes blended with the familiar gentle vocals which tell a tale of two people in love, intertwining with each other.
‘A Violent Noise’ seems to follow its predecessor in terms of musicality, as it sees Sim battle with his coming to terms with constant partying as he matures, reflecting the theme of growth. The interestingly named ‘Performance’ marks the album’s halfway point, a track which blurs the lines of performing as an artist and performing as a character in daily life. It seems to be one of the most honest and haunting songs from The xx to date, coupled with Madley-Croft’s stirring voice.
‘Replica’ picks up the pace at track six, potentially one of the most popular since the album’s release, with celebrities such as Shura having voiced their appreciation for the track. It kicks off with hooking bass notes and RnB drumbeats which develop and evolve into a dream-pop bridge; when layered with the harmonising vocals of the duo it contributes to The xx’s unique sound which sets them apart from their contemporaries.
If the group’s electro signature wasn’t obvious by now, it certainly is from the first few notes of ‘Brave for You’, an evocative piece from its tone, even more so upon hearing the creation of the song comes from Madley-Croft singing about her parents’ deaths and facing up to her fears in order to make them proud, something which is clear to see from this track.
Up next comes ‘On Hold’, the first single the group released after announcing the album. With a subtle tempo which builds up and launches in to the chorus, which includes a housed-up Hall & Oates sample, the band don’t fail in delivering an anthemic alternative single which will be echoed in festivals throughout the summer.
Penultimate ‘I Dare You’ is the smooth piece which follows, with its catchy repeated chorus as it deals with infatuation, a fresh example of the intimacy in The xx’s music and their effortless ability to convey such strong feelings. ‘Test Me’ closes the album; the group have cited the inspiration as being previous struggles in their friendship and dynamics, something which might surprise a listener. Yet it seems to show progression, and is a defining note to end on. The xx are back, evidently stronger and even better than before.