The xx's Reflective New Album Casts a Light Into the Darkness
'I See You' shows more of the British trio than we've ever seen before.
The album cover for I See You, as it appears on streaming services.
There was always a little bit of voyeurism in the appeal of the xx. The British trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith (best known as Jamie xx) emerged in 2009 fully formed as pop songwriters, but their unique spin on the form was in making volcanic emotions—like the last flickers of lost love or the first sparks of a new one—feel like overheard whispers. Their lyrics, which were often simple declarations of intent, resembled (and were, it turns out) transcripts from the high-drama web chats of a pair of young kids—in this case guitarist Madley Croft and bassist Sim.
That intimacy, paired with the fragile embroidery of their instrumentation, made their 2009 self-titled debut feel like it was something you weren't supposed to be listening to—as if you'd been digging through an abandoned USB drive and uncovered a mysterious file called "Album 1." Their 2012 album Coexist largely followed in this vein. Though they branched out a bit on their muted guitar and bass instrumentals, allowing brief swirls of colors to overcome the understated monochromes of their debut, the songs were still the same sort of hushed singing and nonspecific lyrics—like Madley Croft's ad infinitum repetition of just the word "love" on "Angels"—that made them feel either disposable or universal depending on your openness to it. There wasn't much sense of the people behind the songs beyond that, just the simply affecting lyrics—just the bathroom wall scrawlings, little trace of the shy kids who put them there.
If you pick up a physical copy of the xx's new album, the first thing you'll see is yourself. Like their first two albums, the cover for I See You features a distinctive blocky 'X' set on a monochromatic background (xx featured white text on black, Coexist was the inverse, with an oily swirl of color in the middle), but this time it's a reflective, nearly luminescent object that turns the focus back on whoever gazes at it. For the first time, it puts a face on the records of a band that's deliberately shirked public attention in favor of ghostly emotions. Look closely at the version of the art that appears on streaming services and you'll even catch the vague outlines of the trio themselves—it's a symbolic a step into the spotlight, however hazy.
The revelation that there are actually real people behind the wispy songs plays out on the record too. As distinct as the darkened, glassy sound that they settled on for their first couple albums one, listening to I See You feels like a sudden jog of the dimmer switch, like this is the first time we've seen the band in full daylight. The first sound on "Dangerous"—the opening track—isn't a droning guitar line or and the throb of an 808, but a glimmering horn line, like a herald announcing the arrival of low-key pop royalty. The album is full of these sorts of colorful moments. Madley Croft and Sim's guitar and bass lines are a fair bit busier and brighter—even on the otherwise subdued "Say Something Loving"—but Smith is given more room to shine than he ever has on an xx record proper. Following the technicolor success of his solo work, he's afforded a little extra space here, for the neon vomit of trance synthesizers ("A Violent Noise"), warped Hall and Oates samples ("On Hold"), or mournful piano lines ("Test Me"). Though his additions skew synthetic, they still add a new sort of humanity to their work, as if he's filling in the gaps in their DNA implied by the sad silence of their first couple of records.
Madley Croft and Sim have also taken the time to show a bit more of themselves in their lyrics. Once reluctant and shy in their interactions with the press, the pair have opened up in their interviews around this album, detailing more than ever the life events that informed the record. Sim has talked about his struggles with alcoholism; Madley Croft has opened up about how coping with deaths in her family has shaped her writing. Songs like "Replica"—with its depiction of long, lonely nights out—and "Brave for You"—which leans on yearning lyrics like "Though you're not here/I can feel you there"—take on weightier meanings in the light of this biographical info they've decided to share.
Still, for all of I See You's self-reflective innovations, they still rely on the non-specific universalist emoting that they've made their bedrock. It wouldn't be an xx album without Sim and Madley Croft dryly intoning things like "I just don't remember the thrill of affection," but those moments feel different in the light of the specificity and bounteousness that I See You suggests. Sim even seems aware of this, at least obliquely, on "Replica" that he "feels like the song's already been sung." But after he murmurs that self-referential barb, Smith lifts the simple guitar and bass figure into something more ascendant than they've ever done. The beauty of I See You is that they're able to flit between the spectral sentimentality of their past records and something a little more human. They're finally ready to be seen, and even if the edges are still a little fuzzy, if their presence is a little vaporous, it's still something to behold.