Looking back on the discography of The xx, it’s easy to imagine an alternate world where they were just a one-album wonder. Granted, if that album was as good as 2009’s xx, that alternate world would still see them popular and able to tour off the strength of that one album alone for years. While xx was undeniably the work of creative, talented musicians, it’s signature sound was so singular, so fully explored on that album that it was hard to see how they could evolve it. Their 2011 follow-up, Coexist, seemed to offer more proof to the one-album wonder theory; it’s not that Coexist was bad, in fact I’d argue that history has been a tad too harsh on it, but it’s clear on even a casual listen that Coexist was simply a continuation or replication of xx’s sound. A scenario where the trio just continued to try and make xx 3 and xx 4 and so on with increasingly diminishing returns felt imminent.
Then Jamie xx happened. The xx’s third member, who primarily handles production, broke out onto the scene with his solo album, 2015’s In Colour. While Jamie’s production on xx and Coexist was often sparse and minimalist, a simple beat to move the song forward without distracting from Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s strings and vocals, on In Colour his songs were filled with bright, pulsing rhythms and creative uses of vocal sampling which resulted in critical acclaim equal to if not higher than anything by his full band. However, at the same time, the songs on In Colour that featured contributions from Madley Croft and Sim, namely the stunning “Loud Places,” provided a blueprint for the future sound of The xx: lively, colorful electronic beats that inject just as much emotion as Madley Croft and Sim’s vocals.
I See You meets that promise and more. Lead single On Hold starts off with a sparse production reminiscent of old xx, but as the first verse progresses you hear Jamie’s production grow louder and more pronounced, until eventually he twists an old Hall & Oates sample into a lively, almost danceable hook seems to scream out “Bet you didn’t see this coming.” In interviews leading up to the album, Jamie has described his sampling as a way to provide his own voice to the record, which proves to be an accurate assessment. Jamie melds sweet, foreign voices so effortlessly into songs like “Say Something Loving” and “Lips” that, combined with how much more lush and detailed his production has become, result in the album feeling closer to an equal three-person collaboration than ever before.
None of that is to diminish the contributions from Madley Croft and Sim, however. Their vocals are as sharp as ever, both able to express a thousand different emotions in a single, half-whispered-half-sung sentence. While songs like “Performance” and “Replica” show off their vocals best, with minimalist production that calls back to the band’s early work, even on the livelier tracks their vocals still resonate. The moments where Madley Croft’s and Sim’s vocals come together remain the highest moments of the album; lines like “It’s so overwhelming, the thrill of affection” will send tingles down your spine when sung with their vocal chemistry. While Jamie xx’s production certainly feels as if it’s taking lead on a few songs, the vocals always manage to meld into the production, never swallowed away and stripped of their signature intimacy. Few other singers sound this intimate, where with every line they sing you feel closer and closer to them; even on repeat listens it’s shocking just how moving their emotional honesty can be. Songs such as “Brave for You” and “Test Me” are some of the band’s most personal songs yet, going into painful detail about the deaths of Madley Croft’s parents and fighting within the band, respectfully. Similar to xx, you’ll exit this album feeling as if you just spent 40 minutes with three close friends, and you may want to sit down and take some time to think about what you just heard before clicking play again.
While the album isn’t perfect, “I Dare You” awkwardly straddles the line between more traditional xx and arena rock that never quite finds itself, I See You is a warm, moving album that further cements The xx as one of the best bands of the 21st century. It offers proof that The xx will explore more sounds in the future while never losing grip of what makes them special. On “On Hold,” Sim calls out how “you’re too soon to call us old,” and the entirety of I See You goes on to prove his point. From the loud, sharp horn on album-opener “Dangerous” that would be unimaginable in a previous xx record, to the masterful instrumental outro on the end of “Test Me,” The xx sound fresh again.