Not counting the years of teasing and anticipation leading up to this moment, the last we heard from the xx was their 2012 sophomore album Coexist, a time that left their fate in a somewhat uncertain place. It was a gorgeous album to be sure, and featured some of the band’s strongest individual pieces to date, boiling down the acute sensitivity of their debut into a quivering, shattered beauty. Yet, in the process, they very nearly sucked the air out entirely from the project. Coexist could be almost unbearable when listened to in its entirety, suffocating the listener with its relentless, hesitant spaces and wounded guitar lines, already an easily recognizable trademark of the band. “Did I hold it too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?” Romy Croft sang on the stunning “Chained”, in what may have inadvertently doubled as an astute relational reflection and an assessment of the band’s current quandary. Coexist was a successful album, but the question remained in its wake of how long this approach could continue working for the band, the nagging suspicion being not much longer at all.
More than four years and one Jamie xx solo album later, the xx have at last escaped from their self-imposed limitations. I See You finds the band sounding more like a proper trio than ever before, as though Jamie’s In Colour made them suddenly realize what an asset he is to broadening not only their sound but also their emotional palette. Whereas Coexist felt constricted at times, I See You is anything but. The album refracts each song through unexpected musical lenses and applies a sample-heavy approach that reaches out in all directions, making for a refreshingly three-dimensional listen. Indeed, the spectral, reverb-laden guitar that once seemed such an indispensable part of the band’s core sounds now persists mostly as an undercurrent, when it appears at all. The horns — horns! — that kick off the album on “Dangerous” are an immediate signal that this is to be a full-bodied, densely textured affair. Even more traditional Romy Croft ballad numbers like “Performance” and “Brave For You” are layered with thickly applied bass and, in the case of the latter, swell to sonic heights far beyond their initial foundation.
By far the band’s most extroverted work to date, it would nonetheless be too simplistic to assume that I See You is, therefore, the xx’s “happy” album. It is every bit as emotionally complex as previous releases, at times even more so. In their depiction of romantic pursuits, the band certainly evinces a swaggering confidence and boldness here that was rarely encountered on their first two albums, which tended to recede into the background and observe from the sidelines. “I Dare You” and “Dangerous” are irresistibly flirtatious, and “Lips” brims with a breathless, taken-aback sensuality. The xx have never been strangers to the emotional power, for good or ill, of physical touch, yet here they sound more in command of that physicality than ever before. Even when Croft sings, “Here come my insecurities / I almost expect you to leave” on “Say Something Loving”, it comes across more as the self-knowledge that comes with maturity and adulthood rather than total submission to one’s inner demons.
Inner demons crop up before very long in altogether devastating ways. On the densely pulsating “Replica”, Oliver Sim documents his struggles with substance use that came along with sudden stardom, resulting in one of the most lyrically compelling pieces on the album. “Your mistakes were only chemical” is an immediately striking line that probes the question of personal responsibility when it comes to addiction. “25 and you’re just like me / Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat? / Another encore to an aftershow / Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?” he further sings, alluding to the speed and ease with which control can be lost before one even realizes it.
Self-destructive behaviors and their impact on loved ones are later revisited on album closer “Test Me”. Like “Our Song”, the final track on Coexist, “Test Me” is about the bandmates’ relationship with one another, and both are statements of unconditional love. But whereas “Our Song” was an easy, near-saccharine incarnation of such love, “Test Me” is much, much more real than that. “You look, but you never see…Tell me this time you’ve changed”, Croft and Sim sing over a tense, dark musical backdrop. “Test me, see if I stay / How could I walk the other way?” The vow to never abandon one another is still there, but the band has dispensed with any illusions that love is always easy, or that it always feels good. It is here that the title of I See You comes into focus: love, whether platonic or romantic, demands a witnessing of someone, for all their flaws and weaknesses; it depends on a willingness to honestly reflect that back to them, followed by a willingness to stay around regardless.
The brutal autobiographical honesty that Sim puts into it makes I See You in some ways his defining album with the band. In contrast with Coexist‘s more or less Sim-less “Angels”, nowhere here is his contribution more invaluable than on lead single “On Hold”, where he supplies a heartbreaking yet infectious lyrical and melodic hook. “Every time I let you leave / I always saw you coming back to me,” he sings. “When and where did we go cold? / I thought I had you on hold”. I have yet to be able to listen to the song without singing along with that part, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone in that. Expertly employing an unconventional Hall & Oates sample, the song is a strange, euphoric, transcendent combination of regret and triumph. The band’s wise choice to place the track toward the end of the album only further maximizes its emotional impact.
I See You is a much-needed and very successful recalibration of what defines the xx as a band. Without sacrificing any of the confessional, emotionally rich material that made us love them in the first place, the band has dispensed with self-consciousness and proven their ability to expand upon previously held identities, thus cementing their continuing preeminence in the indie music world.