There’s loudly announcing a new direction, then there’s the opening seconds of The xx’s third album. There’s going to be few listeners who won’t wonder if they accidentally got the wrong album when ‘Dangerous’ begins with horn blasts. Up to this point, a song by The xx was an intimate conversation held in a quiet room. Now it’s a similar question held in the corner of a house party. 2012’s Coexist was a decent album that admirably went for the reverse-jugular in its commitment to being even more inward than its predecessor, but it was hard to see where they could take it next.
I See You finds the band in a position where their easily-identifiable sound has been assimilated into the landscape so that producers playing around with MPCs and steel drums are ten-a-penny. Adding to the pressure has been synth/drum/producer Jamie “xx” Smith’s unexpected success as a solo artist and DJ. Though he doesn’t bring the same kind of bombast found on In Colour, there’s a lock in rhythm between the drums and Oliver Sim’s bass that’s more reminiscent of the band’s R&B influences than Young Marble Giants.
Sim and Romy Madley Croft, in turn, align their voices to fit the newfound forcefulness. ‘Dangerous’ and ‘I Dare You’ have a lyrical defiance (“Couldn’t care less / If they call us reckless”) rarely found in xx songs, while the interplay between the two singers on ‘Say Something Loving’ is the most festival-ready anthem they’ve written, yet. While some may be disappointed in the lack of just-for-you intimacy from their first two albums, the most personal moments here stand out all the more for their lack of arch and distance. Croft dedicates ‘Brave To You’ to her deceased parents, while Sim struggles with the weight of his slow recovery to alcoholism in ‘A Violent Noise’, where a club, usually a source of entertainment and pleasure, becomes a drill in his ear threatening to pull him back into oblivion. Both are brave songs, and a refreshing change of pace from the sweet-nothings-for-all approach.
Smith’s deployment of samples – such as the pitch-shifted Hall & Oates in ‘On Hold’ – still have about the same amount of subtlety as on his solo productions (that is, not much) but still reflect his years of crate-digging and ear for detail. The album unfortunately continues the band’s tradition of closing on an unspectacular note – ‘Stars’, ‘Our Song’ and now ‘Test Me’ all tend to evaporate on arrival, which could be their intention, but does not easily incite excitement for listening again. On the whole, however, I See You is the strongest xx-related project since their debut, a creative solution to what could have been a sonic dead-end.