We may as well call them “Jamie and the xx’s” at this point. On The xx‘s third record, I See You, Jamie xx’s samples and electronics overwhelm the trademark dual guitar vs. bass lines and reverb-soaked whispering vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim that characterized the first two outputs from the band. Sure, you could say in hindsight that perhaps Jamie’s talents were underutilized on the first two albums, but this new music is ultimately a response to the critical success of In Colour. I See You shows The xx expanding beyond their minimalist indie pop and introducing grander instrumental elements into their music.
Lead songs “On Hold”, “I Dare You”, and “Say Something Loving” are the best on the record. These particular tracks do a really great job of integrating Jamie’s evolution as a producer and beat-maker with the classic xx sound. On the other end of the spectrum, “Performance” is probably the quietest on the album, a beautifully-delivered ballad by Romy, and even “Replica” mixes in piano perfectly to build on emotions like only The xx can. (The chorus for the latter takes the prize for most evocative lyrics on the album.)
But ultimately, while the effort towards this new expansion of their sound is confident, the songs don’t quite hold up. The reason why the band’s first two albums were excellent despite the similar-sounding songs and continuously mellow vibe was because each song was so uniquely well-written. The opening song “Dangerous” has a great dance beat, but the lyrics resemble that of any throwaway dance song you’d hear at an empty club. “Lips” is so scarily forthcoming and sensual for this band, who up to this point were very lyrically reserved in their lust. Also notably absent from that song, and several others, is extensive instrumental input from Romy and Oliver, aside from riffs here and there. Also going from 0 to 100 very quickly, the majority of the songs on I See You feature a sample of some sort after all original compositions on the first two albums (except for “Chained” on Coexist).
I will say, one positive of more beat-driven xx songs is that their live performances should almost certainly be more exciting to watch. I saw them perform their first album at Lollapalooza in 2010 in scorching heat and in all black and almost fell asleep, but these dancehall tracks and the reworks of old tunes should make the experience more interesting. We saw what happens when there’s a Jamie xx instrumental break in a song when the band performed on SNL – I guess we have more of that to look forward to on their upcoming world tour.
Other reviews have called this new sound “brave”, but I would characterize it more as “safe”. “Brave” was believing in simple, empty, tension-filled pop music on their debut, or starting their highly-anticipated sophomore album with a quiet love song without a steady drumbeat on most of the song. These new tracks are definitely more upbeat, a welcome change. The band sounds more comfortable than ever, but with that comfort comes the challenge of still following the expectations of thoughtful music that characterized their first two albums. And while this new direction isn’t necessarily a bad thing and the richer sound is welcome, The xx should really evaluate the balance between Jamie xx’s dance and electronic background and Romy and Oliver’s contributions. Those two keep this music on I See You from becoming lost in the mix of the other electronic pop music being made, ironically enough, most of which takes its influence from The xx.
On their third album, The xx expand beyond their minimalist indie pop and introduce grander instrumental elements into their music.