Arguably, no band have changed the landscape of pop music quite like The xx. Their startling Mercury-Prize-winning debut back in 2009 expanded the genre’s potential, claiming a space for sparse electronica and minimalist lyrics expressed in barely-there whispers. For such an unassuming trio, their influence cannot be understated, and it doesn’t take particularly careful listening to hear the reverberations of their sound in subsequent artists.
Following their debut, the band released Coexist (2012), a nice, though essentially underwhelming and unmemorable album too close to Xx to be anything new, yet too devoid of the former’s magic to be anything particularly special. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I listened to The xx’s latest album I See You. Confident and bold, the album announces itself with a Caribbean horn fanfare in ‘Dangerous’, signalling a completely new territory, miles away from the twinkly xylophone of early single ‘VCR’. These opening sounds are not misleading; I See You depicts a movement beyond former shyness, into something more assured.
Lyrically, the band have retained their youthful simplicity. They express recognisable feeling, and all-too-familiar romantic dynamics — ‘Here come my insecurities / I almost expect you to leave […] I wasn’t patient to meet you / Am I too needy, am I too eager?’ — though the sentiments are more audible, and expressed with greater energy. The influence of Jamie xx is more pronounced, in the inventive yet meticulous arrangements that flicker and skitter in the background, carrying clear traces of his debut In Colour (2015).
Overall, it is difficult to identify a weak song. The album’s conclusion — ‘Test Me’ — walks the borderline of blandness in its reminiscences of Coexist, though even this is still pretty great. I See You is so seamless, so carefully constructed, that it is difficult even to identify standout moments; every song is illuminated in the context of the album. The recently released singles — ‘Say Something Loving’ and ‘On Hold’ — are both gorgeous, shimmering tracks, that only improve with repeated listening (I dare anybody to listen to the latter without having repurposed Hall & Oates lyrics swimming round their head for days).
If Xx broke new ground, and Coexist was baby-steps back over it, then I See You is a beautifully executed leap of faith. 2017 is still young, but The xx have already set this up to be one of the greatest albums of the year.