There’s something very comforting about the xx. Even though they’ve been away for three years, as soon as they returned with On Hold, it felt as if they’d never left. Like they’d been hugging us in their warm, three person embrace the whole time. That’s most likely because, even though the trio tweak their sound slightly with each release, they have one of the most distinctive sounds in music right now. It’s familiar, heartwarming and heart-wrenching all at the same time.
The xx are best when they’re all complimenting each other, lifting each other. Their recent Instagram activity suggest that their friendship is the best it’s been for some time and their third album I See You is further proof of that. They’ve never been this in sync with each other. Romy and Oliver sing on more tracks together here than on any other album and Jamie xx leaves behind the aesthetic of his critically acclaimed solo album In Colour to fully compliment the vocals and emotional impact.
The trio told us that this record was going to be more “upbeat” and from the first track it’s clear that it is. Dangerous, with its blaring horns, is the most anthemic club track they’ve ever produced and yet they still manage to retain that mysterious, brooding allure. Once again the xx have made a record about love and relationships but while Coexist was minimal and internal, I See You is an extravert. Even on emotional ballads like Say Something Loving, they’re bolder. Romy’s never sounded more confident as a vocalist and her harmonies with Oliver have also never been better.
In many ways, they’ve embraced pop on this record. On Hold has taken over mainstream radio and Say Something Loving looks set to do the same thing because they’re the least limited they’ve ever been. They’ve set no boundaries on I See You and that’s one of its most obvious successes. That’s not to say that they’ve given us everything at once on every song. Restraint is an important part of the xx soundscape and they exercise it expertly on various moments. A Violent Noise works slowly towards a drop that never comes and while on first listen it’s like they’ve left us with blue balls, on second listen it swirls and howls hypnotically. “Every beat is a violent noise,” Oliver sings as if they’ve created the aftermath to Jamie xx’s Loud Places. Where that song was about escaping escaping in loud music, A Violent Noise is about facing reality – noise mutes but it doesn’t cure.
The middle part of the album is not upbeat. It’s delicate and fragile with Romy handling the majority of the vocal duties. On Performance she stands solo on a stage pouring out her heart. “I’ll put on a performance, I’ll put on a show,” she sings alongside a solitary guitar. We reach rock bottom at this point before the trio gradually build us back up. Album highlight Replica, introduces Oliver back into the fold and they gently ease us back into a beat. Once again, they tease us with a drop that never arrives on Brave For You but the mood becomes more positive with Romy singing, “When I’m scared, I imagine you there telling me to be brave.” That’s a goosebump moment – the kind that only the xx can find in their brooding, haunting darkness. Brave For You swells like a storm and it’s only cleared by the clarity of On Hold.
On Hold is the xx’s best single to date. It so successfully caters to radio without forgoing any of their charm. The Hall & Oates sample is distinctively Jamie xx driven and while it’s upbeat, it still centres around their pensive, emotional lyrics – “When and where did we go cold? I thought I had you on hold.” After a stormy middle section it’s freeing to hear them this liberated and it carries onto I Dare You which is their sexiest song ever. It playfully teases both through its hook, “go on, I dare you”, and its rollicking, groovy beat.
The album is a rollercoaster of emotion but all the restraint they show over the course of it comes to a spectacular end on Test Me. They blow the album up, basically. They distort the sound, bloat the volume and roll in a high-pitched synth. If you’ve clenched your fist for most of the album this is where you release. It’s a stunning firework moment that channels frustration.
I See You is heartbreaking but there’s something equally heartwarming about it. Their friendship comes across so strongly on this that even when they’re at their darkest in their own relationships, they still feed off each others support. With every release they build on their sound and also their relationship with each other. On their debut they were cute, on Coexist they were honest but on I See You they’re bold. That trajectory wouldn’t have been possible if there were fractures in the trio.
the xx’s ‘I See You’ is out Friday, 13th January