Drama between musicians has fuelled many a great album. But compared to love quadrangles and corporately expensed cocaine benders that have become rock bio staples, London trio The xx’s issues – like their music – are not so ostentatious.
In interviews, singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim and producer Jamie Smith have described periods of alienation, addiction and insecurity since they stopped touring in support of 2012’s Coexist. Since then, Smith also established a solo career with 2015’s nostalgic ode to British dance music, In Colour.
On I See You, he swaps his signature steel pans for a more rhythmic, sample-oriented approach to soundtracking his bandmates’ existential pining. The result is brighter than past albums and less inward looking.
Lyrics touch on defying outward appearances and perception, a theme established immediately and triumphantly with a thumping beat and ceremonial horn blast on opener Dangerous. “Let them say there are warning signs,” Madley Croft sings. “They must be blind.”
The idea becomes rhetorical on Performance: “If I put on a disguise, will you think everything is alright?” Madley Croft asks. On Replica, a song about becoming your parents (or not), Sim repudiates the inevitability of family history: “They all say I will become a replica / Your mistakes were only chemical.”
This is an album about processing – or working through – feelings. The urge to do that can feel good at first, but it can quickly become self-indulgent. What prevents I See You from slipping into full-on mope mode are the not-so-subtle ways Smith plays off his bandmates.
As has become their signature, Madley Croft and Sim’s phrasing is breathy, intimate and drawn-out, and their pacing on fraught songs like A Violent Noise and Brave For You sometimes feels overly cautious.
However, they now have some competition for the spotlight. In an ironic twist, quietest (and non-singing) member Smith has become the key emotional presence, interjecting playful vocal samples and big, cavernous swells that sound as though he is surrounding, melding with and pushing Sim and Madley Croft’s careful voices to loosen up.
I See You eventually builds into two solid pop songs: the Hall & Oates-sampling On Hold and I Dare You, which seems to both indulge in and comment on the millennial whoop in its chorus. “I’ve been a romantic for song,” Madley Croft belts out. “All I’ve ever heard are love songs.”
If Say Something Lovin’, with its urgent guitar riff and striving melody, is I See You’s early moment of revelatory optimism, I Dare You is the climax: let’s just make an uncomplicated pop song about love and sound like we’re enjoying it. The xx have always been concise pop songwriters, but now they seem interested in approaching the gates of pop nirvana.
Top track: On Hold
The xx play Echo Beach on May 22 & 23. See listing.