For fans of The XX, Friday the 13th couldn’t have come any sooner – it’s been a long five years waiting in anticipation of their third album “I See You” (released via Young Turks label) but luckily it is completely worth the wait. Record and music vendors fuelled the hype by painting iconic silver X’s on their shutters since the band announced the coming album in November 2016. The band also dropped a teaser track “On Hold” just to leave music fans wondering what more the XX had to offer them in terms of delicately precise guitar notes and haunting indecipherable lyrics. There’s no hiding the influence this band has had on popular artists currently hanging out in the top 40 chart – the likes of Shawn Mendes and Adele have used similar elements that are synonymous with The XX’s sonic identity. But while these artists have been churning out pop fodder to the masses, where have the original geniuses’s been hiding for the past five years? The three piece electro indie pop group consisting of Romy Madley Croft on vox and guitar, Oliver Sim on vox and bass and Jamie Smith as main producer took a long hiatus to work on themselves and their own skills it seems, and we as an audience are all the better for it.
Jamie Smiths journey has been no secret- after 2012, he ventured outside of the band to explore and hone his talent as a producer and DJ with “Jamie XX” being his stage name. He has released singles that have made an impact in the electronic and house genres such as “All Under The One Roof Raving” and then in 2015 released a banger of a solo album “In Colour” (which featured his two bandmates) that propelled him on a world tour and to being the freshest must-see DJ at music festivals. Croft decided to work on complex internal issues, dealing with the sudden deaths of her parents at a young age and working on her relationship, both subjects which remain very much at the heart of her songwriting. Sims presence blurred into obscurity, sometimes resurfacing to collaborate with Jamie on a track but mostly to deal with his own personal demons, which to this day remain a private matter but surprisingly raise their head in the track “Replica” off the new album.
The impact that Jamies sideline project had on the bands work was two fold- on one hand Smith had contributed to the pushing back of work on “I see you” due to an extremely busy schedule which left bandmates Croft and Sim in a state of limbo in terms of their own creative endeavours, but also simply missing old times as friends. On the other hand, the band has come on in leaps and bounds in the evolution of their sound. Both Sim and Croft had the time to translate their newly processed issues into lyrics that are more open, more honest and more vulnerable than we’ve ever heard before.
In the curation of their iconic sound in 2009’s debut “XX”, they were at risk of being so forcibly chilled out that they sounded cold, so precise with their notes that they were too stony, and so deep with their lyrics that they were almost pretentious – unable to be understood and meaningfully digested by their fans. There is something to be said with the phrase “less is more” – the band had this down to an art form (Of course, their music was also fresh and resounding which is why we were all so obsessed with them in the first place). “I See You” has the backbones of what they started off with in 2009 but this has so much more. The fact that Jamie has made a name for himself as a DJ hasn’t changed the focus of the music – Sim and Crofts interweaving breathy vocals are at the forefront, still as haunting and heartstring pulling as ever. The tracks just have a fuller sound, a warmer vibe and even wider soundscape thanks to Jamies samples. Jamie has clearly been experimenting, and the finely crafted sounds bring a bolder and more confident tone – as a band, the XX know where they are going this time around.
The opening track “Dangerous” is a banger that I can anticipate being remixed for clubs – the trumpet samples are triumphant and ceremonious as an introduction to the new album. The minimalist beats are still dark and pleasingly sexy to the ears, which are re-invented in every track, a classic XX trait. “Say Something Loving” just does things to me- the lyrics reflect their newfound openness and a vulnerability that has reached a higher level. Croft and Sims emotive voices are still perfection together. “Lips” is a chill and luscious track as the name suggests – Crofts voice is so suited to high notes yet we hear them so rarely with her, which makes tracks like this a treat. “Performance” is a classic XX song – melancholic and stripped down with strings that make it hard not to feel down when you listen; it is hard to appreciate the difficulty for an artist to keep a brave face, by getting up onstage to pour your heart out yet still not deal with the issues they are singing about. “Brave for you” is a similar sounding track, but more about loss and hoping to have made loved ones proud, despite the fear and pain – it breaks your heart when you read into the background story of Crofts life and realise the meaning behind most of her lyrics. Sim then takes the lead with his self written song “Replica” – being the most introspective and shy member of the band it is a privilege to have any opportunity to pick his brains and attempt to decipher what he is trying to articulate. The topic is difficult – an internal struggle of self, and fear of becoming a replica of his parents mistakes. “Violent noise” has some interesting jarring guitar effects that actually work really well and with a beat that you almost expect will boost it up to something more uplifting, however it sadly doesn’t. “Test me” is barely there, but still beautiful in its ghostly reverberations. “I Dare You” is more pop influenced than the others, a classic minimalist XX song but with a catchy chorus, the beat behind it probably giving more life to it than it naturally has.
“On Hold” was the first single to be released from the album, and Jamie’s electronic emphasis is inescapable at this point but it can only carry the band strength to strength in terms of their live performance – it brings a joyful and energetic vibe that people can dance to. Mixing dance music with indie has been done well before, but not so much to an alchemic level of perfection that the XX have accomplished without losing itself to one genre. “I See You” is perhaps a statement that the band have seen and recognised each other’s accomplishments, their personal struggles and life choices but can always build on this together to create something breathtaking and real.
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