The xx is something greater than originally anticipated.
The xx have sins to atone for on I See You. See, back in 2009, they made this near-perfect debut album with a fully-formed sound and aesthetic. Then, they made a pretty good album that sounded similar to that debut, which–according to some music geeks–is one of the gravest artistic fuck-ups one can make. Of course, in the time between that muted second album and I See You, Jamie xx became a sought-after name in the field of electronic music with a far more colorful palette than the sparse, gloomy arrangements favored by his band. Thus, on I See You, The xx utilize their bandmate’s talents to accomplish their goal of sounding as little like The xx as they possibly can.
Given Jamie xx’s rising profile over the years, one will inevitably focus on the production and arrangement of I See You over anything else. To be fair to him, though, Jamie doesn’t treat the album as an excuse to rip up everything about the band completely. Sure, there are moments like the horn samples on “Dangerous” that announce the band’s new direction, but Jamie also understands what works about the band. Thus, we get moments like the brilliant “A Violent Noise” where the samples and electronic flourishes work to deepen the band’s well-established sound even further. The swirling end to the song is, structurally, close to some of Jamie’s work on In Colour, but it’s recontextualized here to better serve the ache and despair that remain the focus of the band’s work. It’s that distinction that keeps the reinvention of I See You from going off the rails.
At the end of the day, The xx is a band, and while Jamie xx has clearly had a major influence on the album, this is just as much the product of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft as it is their more well-known collaborator’s. The pair remain the lyrical focus of I See You, and though the music is livelier than it used to be, the tales of isolation and heartbreak are still here and as cutting as ever. Uncertainty and insecurity permeate their words as they sing of broken relationships, dissipated love and the constant internal struggle that those circumstances bring about. It’s pretty standard stuff as far as The xx go, but the band’s new musical perspective seems to have given the singers/lyricists a new life, as well.
In the end, even if the reinvention of I See You was done for cynical reasons, it’s hard to begrudge The xx for making the decisions they made here. With a few flourishes and tweaks, the band have proven themselves to be something greater than originally anticipated. While they were able to accomplish quite a bit with dark, empty spaces, the twitchy samples and EDM flourishes of I See You suit them remarkably well. Perhaps The xx never really had to atone for anything–though it’s possible that they feel otherwise–but they did perhaps have to evolve before becoming caricatures, and they’ve done so successfully here.