Since the release of its last album in September 2012, British trio the xx has made its heavily anticipated return to the indie-pop music scene. The band’s third album, “I See You,” is true to its trademark dream-like sound but follows new, creative directions. The xx continues to deliver thoughtful messages on the themes of love, lust and conflict in relationships, delivering a master class in a successful sonic evolution.
The album opens with “Dangerous,” a percussive, lively track that invites listeners to get up and dance. The track’s production value reflects the band’s originality and willingness to experiment, fusing vibrant horns with smooth, low vocals from lead singers Romy Croft and Oliver Sim, and even featuring a unique bridge reminiscent of upbeat ‘80s pop. “Dangerous” is unexpected — an instant standout.
Hit single “On Hold” was first released this past November, garnering plenty of attention for the album prior to its recent release. The xx is at its finest with this track, finding its niche in an upbeat tempo and unforgettable hook: “When and where did we go cold?/I thought I had you on hold.” The music video for “On Hold,” shot as a ‘90s-style tribute to a small American town, is an aesthetic representation of the band’s warm, offbeat sense of intimacy.
In a similar vein, “Say Something Loving” and “I Dare You” brim with a sense of desire and closeness that has now become a key characteristic of the xx’s music. Weaving together romantic lyrics and melodic backtracks, these tracks in particular succeed in building tension as the album progresses. On “I Dare You,” Croft’s mezzo and Sim’s baritone are especially harmonious, singing “I got chills/Heartbreak multiplies/I’m on a different kind of high/A rush of blood is not enough,” with expert chemistry that is almost tangible in the vocals.
“Test Me” closes out the album, marking a departure from the xx’s newfound energetic sound. The slow-moving track begins with Croft’s haunting vocals on full display but slowly tapers them out. This leaves listeners with a melancholic, purely instrumental piece that is interspersed with whirs and whistles that would not be out of place in a science-fiction movie. Reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, “Test Me” fades out slowly, leaving listeners wanting more.
The xx is known for a minimalistic musical approach, using simple instrumental backtracks to highlight the stunning vocals of lead singers Croft and Sim. While their singing still takes center stage on “I See You,” Croft and Sim’s voices now fuse with a number of other elements, from synthesizers to the occasional sample, such as Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” on “On Hold.” Despite having an intricate sound, the xx manages to retain its easy-listening quality. Composer and band member Jamie Smith ultimately succeeds in toeing the fine line between complex and overproduced.
In this sense, “I See You” is a slight transition away from the xx’s classically mellow sound. Although the album definitely bears semblance to the band’s debut xx (2009) and sophomore release Coexist (2012), it creates a brighter and livelier listening atmosphere. A more stripped-down single like “Basic Space” (a standout hit from xx) might not truly belong on I See You Now.
The “I See You” tour kicks off on February 8 and hits the United States in April. The xx is also on the lineup for Coachella this spring, as well as a number of other music festivals later in the year. With a number of concert venues already sold out, the band is developing a loyal fan base and leading role in its genre.
Although the xx has crafted a more inventive, modern sound, its latest release still has all of the makings of its original work: wispy vocals, strong hooks and heartfelt lyrics. Equal parts dynamic and dreamy, “I See You” is a bold new step in the right direction for the xx.