In Colour is remarkably breezy, soulful and human, uncommon qualities for the proper debut of a high-profile electronic producer.
It is a strange electronic-music-related phenomenon that producers and DJs can go years without a proper full-length album of their own, patiently cultivating their audience and refining their sound before releasing a singular artistic statement. The strategy is almost a cultural throwback to the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when jukebox single and one-hit-wonder artists reigned supreme, or even the underground punk and indie landscape of the ‘70s and ‘80s when bands made their names on stage in dingy clubs rather than in record stores. In the case of Jamie Smith, stage name Jamie xx, there’s a lot of context to dig through: lauded indie project the xx, We’re New Here, the cheekily titled album of remixes from Gil Scott-Heron’s final studio album I’m New Here and collaborations and reworked tracks with everyone from Adele to Radiohead.
Consequently, there’s a lot of expectation behind Jamie xx’s formal studio debut In Colour, which is a bit of a misdirect. Hasn’t he already proved himself as a producer? Does it make sense to heap this much pressure on an artist we already know so well? Despite high expectations, the chances of being let down from an album as rich as In Colour are low, and when the post-release hype eventually clears, it will surely be regarded as one of the most artistically vital electronic records of the year.
Jamie xx’s talent is on full display on the album. He deftly explores the rhythmic properties of simple vocal samples and accentuates them, as on album opener “Gosh,” where a simple, deep intonation — “Oh my gosh” — is matched with a shuffling beat and pulsing melody for a swirling, impressively transformative track built from basic elements. The atmospheric and evocative “Loud Places” will appease fans of the xx and chillout music alike, while even the relatively simple “Obvs” charms with ethereal effects and unexpected steel drum patterns. His melodies shift over buoyant beats, consistently building to heart-stopping climaxes that make a satisfying, dynamic sense of progression throughout the album. Characterizing In Colour as a debut is misleading not only because of Jamie’s highly-publicized musical history, but also because of how experienced he sounds in every facet of the production.
When he does bring a guest vocalist around, they provide an accent to his expansive production and not their own centerpiece — save perhaps for the Young Thug/Popcaan jam “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” The xx’s Romy has her airy voice layered under an ocean of synthesizers on “SeeSaw” and again on “Loud Places,” though in the latter, Smith positions her high in the mix during the song’s subdued verses for a more conventional sound. Unlike so many contemporary producer’s solo albums stuffed with high-profile guest spots and the awkward stylistic concessions that come as a result, there’s no question that Smith is the mind, soul and body behind In Colour, a record that’s clearly the product of an auteur’s voice.
The album has its dry spots on songs that aren’t fully evolved, such as the semi-anticlimactic closer “Girl” and the static, Oliver Sim-featured ballad “Stranger in a Room.” These are the moves of a producer aiming for a sprawling sound, trying to force a dynamic onto music that doesn’t need help to evoke its own unique sensations. In Colour can’t be faulted for being the product of an overly ambitious artist, particularly because it’s so controlled and mellow. After all, songs like the gorgeously serene “Sleep Sound” are not the result of heavy public pressure, high expectations or anal micromanagement. On the contrary, In Colour is remarkably breezy, soulful and human, uncommon qualities for the proper debut of a high-profile electronic producer. Sometimes hype pays off.