Album review: The xx open up in myriad ways on ‘I See You’

The XX’s third studio album, “I See You.”

The xx I See You

Three and a half stars

If there’s a theme to The xx’s third album, I See You, it’s openness—something that could be considered anathema to the English trio’s signature sound, often marked with descriptors like “bedroom music” and “intimate.” While largely preserving their minimal late-night grooves from its 2009 Mercury Prize-winning, self-titled album on its 2012 follow-up Coexist, The xx have now gone in another direction, partly to artistically evolve, and partly due to the path life took each member. The resulting work teems with maturity, and the upshot of the band’s newfound extroversion makes I See You its most accessible record—in every aspect of the word.

Opener “Dangerous” serves as a declaration of this unfurled, unburdened approach, from the opening brass section to the sampling beneath vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims, who trade off verses and then harmonizing during the chorus, per usual. The difference here is the programming; The xx have ditched their previous and strictly adhered rule of only recording sounds that could be playable live. The approach continues with likely (and deserving) single candidate “Say Something Loving,” the band’s sonic mastermind Jamie “xx” Smith applying the expanded palette established with his acclaimed 2015 solo album, with added live drums and Croft moving over from guitar to keyboards. Entry points continue to abound, as tinkling keys and what sound like Asian whirling drums give dimension to the hypnotic “Lips,” as does the string section in “Performance.”

That latter song is both a vocal and lyrical a tour de force by Croft, who bares her heartbreak with uninhibited grace: “It is a performance/I do it all so/You won't see me hurting.” Her co-singer Sims adopts the same tact on a pair of songs that address his struggles with alcohol abuse; his baritone adds gravity to the lines “Another encore to another after show/do I chase the night or does the night chase me?” in the throbbing, lurching “Replica,” enhanced by Smith’s ascendant synth melodies and Croft’s spare guitar notes. Throughout the album, both Croft and Sims offset the expansion of the music by writing more confessional and less-guarded sentiments, even if the delivery method—their trademark R&B-inspired crooning and earnest vocal phrasing—remains the same. If there’s one thing they were wise not to change, it’s the romanticism, ache and general conviction in their singing, now strengthened by both physical and emotional experience.

Anyone who groaned over the slicker texture to Coexist won’t find I See You any more digestible, and the overtly pop tones on first single “On Hold” further separate the band from whatever wholesomeness people still associate with the debut album. But while that effort will remain a masterpiece in its simplicity and direct-hit resonance, I See You is a more complex work that offers much more to absorb.

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