My history with The xx may explain my pervasive ambivalence to them. They were an oft-mentioned, ever-expanding presence in indie music circles, seemingly leaping overnight from closet-sized venues (or, for all I know, no venues at all) to sold-out stretches at Radio City. One day they were just there, as if they had always been there, and if you had somehow made it that far without ever hearing them, you were better off simply saying you weren't into them lest you be incredulously questioned. So when I finally decided enough was enough, I began with their second record, 2012's Coexist. It was a sleepy, meandering, nondescript album that made me wonder what went on during their arena tours besides maybe communal naps. It would be a few years before I would delve into their debut self-titled record, which was by no means a bolt of energy, but which boasted memorable enough melodies and meditative if sparse shoegaze elements. They weren't Slowdive, but there was, for certain, something there.
I'm not quite ready to repent. I still don't see what it is that managed to captivate hoards of Brooklyn millennials with seemingly bottomless disposal income besides, maybe, one more thing to smoke weed to. How could the same demographic who adored the pomp and circumstance of a Beyonce concert be willing to enter the same venues (and pay about the same money) to be more or less electronically whispered to? But 2017's I See You makes sense. From the trumpet blare that opens the record's first track, there is a feeling that there's a new substance and purpose here--a sort of attitude that was missing in the band's first two releases.
None of this is to say that I See You is a departure, or that original xx fans will find themselves abandoned. On the contrary, if you liked those first two records, I can't imagine their latest effort not blowing you out of the water. It's all of the smoothness their reputation was born on with heightened intensity, a sparkling sheen, and some unexpected soul. It may be a little more R&B than their previous records, but if their audience's predominant tastes are any indication, that should be a welcome evolution--especially when the group does it so surprisingly well. Each song on I See You outshines even the finest of the band's releases to this point. It's sexy and celestial and, should you ever be fortunate enough to find yourself in the situation, the perfect soundtrack for fornicating in a space station, sweaty bodies up against whatever massive window overlooks the stars.
Here the band balances two talented vocalists perfectly. Romy Madley Croft's verses are ethereal and hypnotic, dissipating into the thick humidity of each track. Oliver Sims' voice rumbles sensually. The two styles never quite amalgamate; it's generally one on top of the other, or both traveling in lock step. But the way The xx parades out masculinity and femininity side by side is enthralling--like watching a split screen of haunting complementary imagery in some chic SoHo art gallery. It fits their go-to subject matter (love and all that comes with it) flawlessly. The two share singing duties just about evenly across the board, and only in rare occasions own a song entirely. More often than not the two are playing back and forth or uniting not for harmonies but octaves-apart melody-matching. Despite the simplicity, it's a surprisingly uncommon approach in indie music.
And while every track on I See You is a logical evolution from the band's previous efforts, the diversity across the album is remarkable. The opener "Dangerous" is carried by a sizzling bass line that, were it not from the sultry vocals, could make it a formidable 90s hip-hop sample. "Lips" has the swagger of a Solange track, swaying and seducing with rich synth and a brilliant electronic drum pulse. "Brave For You" has the elements of a pop ballad and could pass for a Lorde or Lana Del Ray song were it more consumed with pop accessibility. There is a cohesion across the album--a distinct aural identity that makes this The xx through and through. But unlike on previous efforts, here the London outfit wants to brandish its range. In a way, it's a Kama Sutra of music, exploring all the different kinds of sex you could ever hope to have, from the gentle, endearing morning variety to the one a.m. rendezvous with an attractive stranger. There's no shortage of orgasms to be had here, but how they come about will vary.
I have no apologies to The xx or their fans. Those first two records are, at best, satisfying and, at worst, drowsy. Maybe this is a shortcoming of my palate--I begrudge no one for their passionate commitment to the group. But I See You is an early favorite among 2017 releases. It's ensconcing, entrancing, enrapturing. It's everything I expected to hear when I saw their iconic logo plastered everywhere and had to always answer questions about my familiarity with their work. Now I feel less bad about all the times I lied.
Label: Young Turks
Magic Moment: The aforementioned opening seconds of "Dangerous," when a trumpet blare welcomes what ultimately emerges as anything but regal: a livewire bass riff and an infectious, skittering drum line that are just the appetizers for a song that builds on itself with each passing second.
The Pair to Start With: Dangerous, I Love You
Buy It, Spin It, Spurn It, Burn It: Buy it