Album Review: The xx, ‘I See You’

Written by Dan West

With I See You, The xx have fully replaced their familiar exclusivity with a gaze peering outwards. Never an outsider act, nonetheless the trio has always privileged intimacy over universality, reflexivity over reception, elegizing home videos in the track “VCR,” solitude in the recording of “Islands” and even going so far as to book multi-date residencies in major cities in order to play to the smallest possible audiences.

But where 2009’s self-titled release and 2012’s Coexist were designed for a bar or café-like setting, I See You seems attuned to a stadium scale. Guitars, always a surprising constant of this “laptop band,” are noticeably more layered and now augmented by brassy backing synths, affording what was formerly an exclusively cool palette more space in the sonic reds and oranges.

The group’s two vocalists, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, have developed into a vocal unit whose timbre and range is equally more developed in its range and richness. Somewhat paradoxically, the singers have become more distinct and noteworthy as the group has grown in scale and audience.

Producer Jamie xx, who has become the breakout star of the group in the roughly 4 years since the last record, packs this new LP with effervescent arrangements and diversified percussion that made his solo debut, 2015’s In Colour, one the best pop records of the decade so far.

The synthesis of these developing threads results in a splendidly robust iteration of The xx’s brisk 40-minute format. Certain songs, especially “Replica,” “Say Something Loving,” and “Performance,” feel like career highlights. Not only are they the closest the group has come to pop breakthroughs since the London Olympics-adjacent “Intro,” they are among the most lyrically sophisticated tracks in the band’s life so far.

A new set of interpersonal and identitarian subjects are developed to accompany the group’s more typical me-and-you-against-the-world motif, especially in the potent “Replica,” where the very nature of pop’s mechanism for repeating the miracles of love at first sight becomes the source of romantic tension for its pop singer protagonist. It isn’t hard to see a connection between this new pocket of rich lyrical content and a further robustness in the group’s sound — this is a band with a real opening for a popular breakthrough, not only because the genre for which The xx were a posterchild has moved to the center of the dial (or center of the homepage) this decade but because the group has gotten to see the workings of the major label studio system from within.

Since the making of Coexist, Jamie xx has collaborated with such major names as Young Thug, Drake, Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Gil Scott-Heron. It seems that a consequence of access to these large-scale undertakings has been a deeper consideration of pop’s intense awareness of a spectator’s (and listener’s) view and the ways to accept, deny or toy with this view. Returning to the project that was his original concern, Jamie xx appears to have treated the properties of his groupmate’s voices and the sonic background that contains them with the touch of a loving outsider, in the process deepening their strengths.

I See You sounds like a dare to a public that has begun to consume records like the ones they made 8 years ago: “World, we see you and it’s time you recognize us back!”

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.