Monday, January 16, 2017

album review: 'i see you' by the xx

Hmm... this is a bit of an odd case, and one that you typically see. I can't deny I'm a little amused by it, but the novelty of it all means we should get used to seeing this more often.

See, I liked The xx. As an indie pop group they worked in refining very sleek, reserved R&B-inspired pop songs tapping into a certain minimalist shyness that could be pretty compelling in the right setting. And while I thought their sophomore album didn't quite connect as deeply as their debut, and even despite entirely too many indie pop groups following in their wake to muddle this sort of quiet introspection and make boring garbage, I saw a place for The xx. Not a big place, I would never call myself a huge fan, but they didn't need a lot of space to make their points.

And then their producer Jamie xx released In Colour in 2015. Picking up vocal performances from his bandmates, it was one of the biggest indie records of 2015 - and for good reason, as it picked up a ton of critical acclaim for its lush, gorgeously organic, potent as hell production. Sure, it wasn't doing anything all that new in terms of electronic music, but it had a level of taste, swell, and potency that set it apart, easily making it one of my favourites of that year more than I could have ever expected. But that raises a fascinating question when it comes to band dynamics - the solo sideproject that blew up from The xx was from their producer and with a decidedly different sound and approach to the main group, which raised the big question of where The xx would take it. Buzz was suggesting that they'd be following along with a bigger sound, but could that compromise the reserve and subtlety that made The xx so distinctive? In other words, I was decidedly curious about where I See You was going - so where did it go?

Well, if anything, The xx made the record that is such a natural evolution given the past few years that it's almost not even surprising. Following in the wake of Jamie xx's success, there's more samples, a choice to embrace a larger, slightly more expansive sound and mix... but they went further than even that, because not only is I See You the natural sonic evolution, it's the natural thematic evolution as well, all while still preserving in concept and framework the formula that made The xx so effective. In other words, unless you seriously get hung up on the sonic shift, I can see fans of The xx getting behind this - and yeah, I'll definitely include myself in that group, because I liked this - a lot.

Now the first thing to stress is that the core of The xx's sound is still here - Romy Madley Croft with liquid but defined guitar lines, Oliver Sim's prominent bass guitar, and vocal chemistry and interplay that only seems to be getting better with every record as Croft's voice picks up more expressive subtlety. Seriously, if you liked her expressive presence on songs like 'Loud Places' off of In Colour - which was one of my favourite songs of 2015, for the record - you're going to love her work here, her poise and yet vulnerability is beautifully realized. It's almost a shame that Oliver Sim isn't quite advancing at the same rate - he is becoming a more expressive singer and there are definitely points on songs like 'Replica' and 'A Violent Noise' where he absolutely captures that narrow balance of tension and yearning, but Croft is just in a different ballpark at this point, it's stunning.

But what will draw a lot more attention is Jamie xx's production work - because while he's always been a master of the fine details and subtlety, balancing the sunken reverb with the sparse grooves that have always been at the foundation of The xx's formula and blending it with gorgeous organic texture, avoiding the sterility that has crippled so many albums dousing themselves in reverb, this record is aiming bigger. Promoting mixer Rodaidh McDonald - you'll recognize that name from How To Dress Well and Savages - up to co-producer, the first signs of a more aggressive sound come through on the first track 'Dangerous', with ominous shrill blasts of synth horns opening a roiling bass groove against the scratchy percussion, calling to mind the start of a night of partying that's destined to descend into reckless territory. But what's interesting is how the melodies are placed within the mix - very audible, playing a key role in the balance, but midway back, a fair bit behind the vocals and slightly blurred over, especially the guitar tones, masterfully capturing the feel of closeness and isolated intimacy within a much larger scene around our protagonists. This was something Jamie xx touched into for the festival-ready In Colour, but by necessity the smaller scope narrows the sensory focus, leaving the guitars and spurts of jagged synth lingering like on 'Lips', the samples adding further color to songs only noticed in the background, even on a track like 'On Hold' where the Hall & Oates sample anchors the hook it fits. Again, it's a command of atmosphere and mood that Jamie xx captures incredibly well, and it lends some potent subtle flourishes to songs like 'A Violent Noise', where against a jagged melody line the guitar drops out to use negative space as musical punctuation on the hook, on the fragile elegance of 'Performance', with ill-fitting touches of elegance in the strings that contrast powerfully against the mournful guitars that later uses the hazier guitars to build against more of a foundation on 'Brave For You' - less elegant but more real - or the washed-out shimmering liquidity of 'Replica'. Even just subtle moments, like the multitracked swell on the hook of 'I Dare You', or the absolutely heartbreaking fragile piano progression of 'Test Me' that lets the horn linger in the background, with the vocal placement highlighting a distance that the outro manifests in vocal fragments swirling into the sky against pieces of melody. Honestly, the production is so damn good it raises the question of where I could find flaws with it... and if I were to nitpick, I do think some of the samples like on 'Say Something Loving' or 'Lips' could have been a shade better blended, and the liquid blur of guitars does begin to run together and feel a bit monochromatic...

But I have a hard time complaining about that, mostly because that slightly washed out colour so perfectly compliments the lyrics and thematic arc. And again, it's a tad tough to describe what makes The xx's lyrics work so damn well for me, but the core to it is very much at the core of so much great pop music: saying a lot with few words. There isn't a wasted syllable in a song from The xx, and while it can make some of their tracks feel a little barren of greater detail, the delivery is often so good that you can pick out bigger strings of universality that if anything are magnified here. Because - and this might surprise you - for The xx, this is their party record, the one that ventures out into the night to find some vestige of escape, populist and well-framed enough to acknowledge their own lingering weaknesses and very real flaws and insecurities as they put aside shyness to find something out there, anything. That's one of the reasons why this record has a fair amount of resonance - both Sim and Croft are so fully realized characters, with Croft's hesitant bravery and desperation balanced against Sim's own carefully contained fears and apathy, that you understand exactly why they'd find the danger in each other on the opening track, why they'd second guess every step of the connection on 'Say Something Lovely', and their disenchantment with the party hollowing real connections on 'A Violent Noise'. But their loneliness drives them to engage anyway, from Croft's walking 'performance' which is the only way she feels she'll find any attention, her dogged commitment to do it for herself only masking a deeper grief, to Sim's growing feeling that he is falling into a lingering routine that sees nothing improve, afraid to change things for fear it could all go wrong. And there are few songs that capture that very realistic sense of modern relationship status quite as well as 'On Hold' - Croft moves on after being held at a distance, and Sim is left confused - he thought they could have had something, he was going to come back to it... but it's too late. It's why 'I Dare You' and 'Test Me' work so damn well as album closers and in capturing the spirit that lies in this record's title: it's clear both partners see each other and know exactly what the other is doing - and know that the other person knows this - so the biggest step comes in the dare, the choice, to push past introspective hesitation and take reality, even though that could be a change that breaks things apart. 

And then you read an interview and realize on 'Test Me' that it isn't just about abstract relationships but instead drawing deeper parallels drawn to how The xx operate as a band and people, with the choices coming with greater experimentation that could compromise who they were, and with the lyrical references to performance and repetition and being brave enough to step into dangerous territory with violent noises all the more stark... okay, definitely a reach to include the entire record in that context, especially tracks like the more straightforward 'Lips' or the tribute to go forward in the memory of her parents' passing on 'Brave For You', but thematically it fits. This is a record about acknowledging the choices that lie ahead, moving past loss, failure, and stasis, and continuing to plow forward, and it hits at a core of modern relationships among those of us more introverted that I found really powerful - both partners, prospective, current, or ex, can have all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips, but not moving is also a choice, and if you want to advance to find deeper closure and passion, the choice has to be made. And as such... I think it's on par with their debut album, or at the very least pretty close to it. Now I'm not going to say I like I See You more than In Colour - that album just captured a sense of scope and atmosphere so fully it blows me away to this day - but for me, this is a very solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of The xx. Once again, an object lesson on how doing less can mean so much more - I see you, The xx, damn fine work indeed.

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