Review: The xx lightens up — or does it? — on ‘I See You’
The lead single with the prominent Hall & Oates sample. The music video set at an underage dance party. The publicity photos that suggest a sunny Netflix reboot of “Three’s Company.”
Everything the xx has revealed in the run-up to its third studio album, “I See You,” seems to lead toward the idea that this once-gloomy electro-soul trio has lightened up.
And why not?
In the eight years since Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith released their debut album, the xx has quietly become a pillar of alternative pop, winning prestigious awards and playing major festivals like Coachella, where the band will appear for the third time this spring.
Even more gratifying, one presumes, the group’s influence is easily detectable up and down the musical food chain — in the breathy male-female vocals of the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” for instance, and the gently pulsating synths of “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber.
So, of course, these kids would turn their frowns upside down, right? Given their achievements, you’d half expect “I See You,” due Friday, to sound like Sheryl Crow made it.
Well, not quite.
For sure, this is a brighter, more vivid affair than 2009’s rigorously stripped-down “xx” or its 2012 follow-up, “Coexist.” The album — which the xx recorded partly in Los Angeles — opens with a triumphant horn fanfare in “Dangerous.” And that lead single, “On Hold,” rides a buoyant groove formed around the identifiable voice of Daryl Hall singing “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”
Other songs nod to the sleek club music that Smith (known as Jamie xx) focused on for his 2015 solo album, “In Colour” — particularly “A Violent Noise,” which could be a hollowed-out Calvin Harris track. Throughout the record, Sim’s and Madley Croft’s vocal melodies are sturdier and more shapely than in the past, a product perhaps of the time Madley Croft spent in L.A. between xx albums working on potential songs for pop stars. (There she is in the writing credits for the latest by OneRepublic.)
“A rush of blood is not enough / I need my feelings set on fire,” Madley Croft sings in “I Dare You,” and that feels like the animating impulse here: more texture, deeper emotion, higher stakes.
Yet the emotion in question isn’t always happiness, even if that’s what the musicians look to be experiencing as they let loose among a bunch of grinning high-schoolers in the “On Hold” video.
For one thing, professional success has hardly eased the romantic anxiety that courses through the xx’s music. In “Performance,” Madley Croft sings about putting on a game face “so you won’t see me hurting,” while “On Hold” wonders how a pause in a relationship became a breakup: “Every time I let you leave,” Sim moans, “I always saw you coming back to me.”
Even songs about the promise of young love are haunted by doubt, as in “Say Something Loving,” where Sim worries he’s being too eager in front of a crush, and “Dangerous,” in which he and Madley Croft can’t resist contemplating a scenario in which “this only ends in tears.” (Though their closely braided vocals have led many listeners to assume the singers are a couple, they’re not; both are gay.)
For Sim, who’s spoken in interviews about his struggles with alcohol, the band’s success was itself a trap. “Another encore to an after-show / Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?” he asks in “Replica” — not exactly “All I wanna do is have some fun.”
And then there’s the album’s closer, “Test Me,” which could be seen as unsparingly describing the complicated friendships among three band members who’ve known each other since they were children.
“Just take it out on me,” Madley Croft murmurs. “It’s easier than saying what you mean.”
Despite all this, “I See You” does have a newly welcoming quality, and not just because the musicians have started smiling for the camera. On “xx” and “Coexist,” the xx was using sadness as a kind of shield; its stylish monotony kept you from regarding the players as real people open to real connection.
Here, in contrast, the music’s dynamics make you feel closely involved in what they’re singing about — the highs as well as the lows.
“I See You” presents a band willing to be seen.
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