I See You is the xx like never before. Yet at the same time, the trio of vocalist/guitarist Romy Madley Croft, vocalist/bassist Oliver Sim, and percussionist/producer Jamie Smith remain indebted to their signature blend of ambient pop and indietronica. Coming from the success of Jamie xx’s 2015 In Colour, it was inevitable the xx would begin to reinvent their sound, upping the ante on the percussion side while retaining the neo-romantic dream pop stylings of their previous efforts.
Album opener Dangerous feels like one of Jamie xx’s In Colour prototypes, but Romy’s and Oliver’s contributions barely feel tacked on at all. The trio works well together, with thick brass hits and bouncy percussion creating the xx’s easily most groove-laden and danceable track. At first glance, the atypical Dangerous would put off most longtime listeners of the band, but the xx steer away from this lush sound throughout the rest of the album, returning to their minimalist pop roots for most tracks. Abandoning dense percussion for tracks like Replica and I Dare You seems sparse at first, but its easily more appropriate for these slower paced songs.
Say Something Loving sees Romy and Oliver spar with one another over layers of Jamie’s washed out percussion; the interplay between the vocals is what makes it. Alone, neither of their voices are poignant enough to take hold of the track, but together, Romy’s high-pitched performance and Oliver’s deep croons work beautifully together. With a sample of the Alessi Brothers’ 1976 Do You Feel It? coming forward to bridge their verses every once and a while, Say Something Loving is a chorus of diverse voices that surprisingly works.
On Lips and A Violent Noise, the xx form walls of dreamy sound, that while captivating and engaging at first, soon stagnate and grow uninteresting. The duo’s vocals do little to alleviate this, as it’s really Jamie’s ambient percussive elements that stand out to drive the track forward. A sample of David Lang’s Just (After Song of Songs) stands out on Lips as a very signature Jamie xx addition; yet instead of a captivating UK bass groove, listeners are hit with water droplet like drums that the other two-thirds of the xx fail to capitalize on. It’s not a bad track, but it’s one of those moments where it seems like it worked have worked much better on a Jamie xx solo project.
Halfway through the album, by Performance, the xx exchange percussion for an ambient ballad soloed by Romy. Descending strings in the background evoke a very Kid A- or Sigur Ros-esque atmosphere of ambient tension, although like many of I See You’s tracks, the xx create a great idea with little progression. This issue is most evident on the closing track Test Me, more of a theatre of ambience consisting of all buildup rather than any sort of resolution or climax to the momentum constructed throughout the rest of the album.
Even so, I See You’s high points are stunning and easily overshadow its few weaker tracks. On Hold, the album’s first single and by far its most evocative and outstanding track, shines as a beacon of dreamy, ambient pop amidst a sea of indie pop groups flooding the airwaves with second-rate indietronica. Ambient synthesizers beautifully complement guitars, while Oliver provides a hook that is both catchy and poignant. On Hold is the best example of the xx reconciling their signature style with Jamie xx’s innovations; hazy guitar chords coalesce with wailing electronic tones, backed by alt-dance rhythms that bring it all together. The momentum leading into the second hook is I See You’s most powerful moment. Oliver croons as Jamie’s drums slowly come back into focus, culminating in the remarkably catchy use of a sample from Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), providing a breakdown and an infectious hook.
I See You is not a startling innovation for dream pop or ambient dance, but for the xx, it is a total makeover. Its melancholy, moody ballads remain interesting after multiple listens, but its the uptempo inventive dance tracks like On Hold and Dangerous that will get stuck in your head and bring the audience back for a second round with its more ambient experiments. The trio have carved themselves out a unique sound that can surely only progress in the future.