I See You might just be the album to bring The xx’s music to new audiences. Sounding more like Top 40 hits than their previous works, I See You is a collection of beat-driven pop and highly produced sad songs.
Long-time fans of The xx will not find themselves retreating into the atmospheric cave created by the band’s past albums, nor encountering the same purely instrumental moments or silences. The simplicity of 2009’s xx and 2013’s Coexist has gone too. I See You still offers that special sound of Romy Madley Clark and Oliver Sim singing in unison, and songs about introversion, having problems quietly and ending relationships.
Lead single ‘On Hold’ showcases Madley Clark and Sim’s beautiful vocals and Jamie (xx) Smith’s production skills in putting together dance beats, choppy vocals, samples and a funky base line. It is a definitive break with the band’s past style but it works as a dreamy pop song. The music video is nostalgic for indie icons like pay phones and features a cast of teenagers. Coupled with the song’s high rotation on commercial radio, I wonder if ‘On Hold’ and I See You will bring The xx a new, younger audience.
Pop and dance influences come through early in the record. The album kicks off with ‘Dangerous’, a fun tune about the age-old subject of being a bit reckless and maybe partying too hard. ‘Lips’, the third track, starts off with a harmony but quickly moves into a dance beat that reminds me of at least three pop songs. The bass is low and so are the vocals; the song turns out to be a little sexy.
But not all the album achieves a balance between sad lyrics and dance music. Lyrically ‘Say Something Loving’ seems too sincere for the music, making it feel over produced and unsubtle. ‘A Violent Noise’ builds up until I think it will spill over into an early-2000s-inspired electronic/trance beat but it never does. I cannot decide if this is misplaced production or very clever because the let-down mirrors the song’s content about dissociation and loneliness on a dancefloor.
And then the tone really softens: ‘Brave For You’ is a personal song about family grief. It is heart-wrenching. As is ‘Replica’, a haunting song alluding to histories of addiction. The last two songs on the album, ‘I Dare You’ and ‘Test Me’ are a return to the sounds of The xx’s earlier years. The album’s real gem is ‘Performance’ midway through – a minimal piece sung entirely by Madley Clark. There is space to listen to the lyrics that contemplate public appearances and preparing a game face.
I See You is in a tradition of bands putting down their guitars to take up synths and drum machines. The sound is different but, at the same time, it has been 8 years since The xx’s indelible debut album and perhaps it is time we (I) allow the indie darlings of 2009 to mature and start listening to more pop music.