Released in January 2017, I See You is the long-awaited third album of The xx. Despite having embarked on solo projects (most notably Jamie Smith a.k.a. Jamie xx with his debut In Colour), the group have created an album which signifies a departure from the style of their previous music. Released through the Young Turks label (whose roster also includes Jamie xx, FKA twigs, SBTRKT and Sampha), I See You shows an alternative side to The xx; the tone is generally one of optimism that is far from the desolation of previous albums.
Nowhere is this altered perspective more apparent than in the opening track ‘Dangerous’, which verges on alternative dance. Fans of the mellower, less densely-orchestrated songs of The xx’s previous offerings may find themselves alienated from the start. ‘Dangerous’ provides a loud, definitive start to the album with its triumphant chorus of synthesised brass and funky bass-line but the underlying artificial beat and its percussive, syncopated snare notes could easily be sampled from a Jamie xx track. There is an overall shift to a more bass-oriented sound on I See You, which may be a concession to popular demand for songs with a discernible beat instead of reproducing the haunting, rattling, rhythmically varying sounds of The xx and Coexist. Nevertheless, the album stands firmly on its own and remains a far cry from Jamie xx’s brand of electronica.
The instantly recognisable vocals of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim are heard from the beginning and their ability to blend seamlessly with each other is among the band’s biggest strengths. ‘Say Something Loving’ is a multi-faceted Florence & The Machine-esque track with slower paced guitar chords sporadically accompanied by strings. Unfortunately it feels underwhelming after potent opener ‘Dangerous’. ‘Lips’, however, is three and a half minutes of sheer musical bliss as Croft longingly sings lyrics such as “my name on your lips/your air in my lungs/drowned in oxygen”, showing that The xx have not evolved beyond recognition (though it is surprisingly sensual for the band). Pulsing steadily with occasional choral backing, the song is brooding and characteristically atmospheric.
‘A Violent Noise’ is initially quite a delicate song with shuddering percussion, though it builds up masterfully to be quite a force by its end. ‘Performance’ is an uncertain, emotional number with a distinctive opening bass melody and pained yet determined lyrics such as “When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”. ‘Replica’ is somewhat nondescript and the weakest song on the album, with uninteresting musical content undermining promising lyrics like “They all say I will become a replica/Your mistakes were only chemical”.
Solemn and grand, ‘Brave For You’ is a tribute to Croft’s deceased parents. Starting with a quiet sense of vulnerability, it builds gradually to become one of the most powerful, memorable tracks on the album. ‘On Hold’ is catchy and features a sample from the Hall and Oates song ‘I can’t go for that (No Can Do)’. As a song that seems to belong on a Jamie xx album it is slightly jarring, but it works as a pop-oriented crowd pleaser. ‘I Dare You’ is a typically xx-style track about desire and being high on love with the duo singing lines such as “Now I’m deep in it/Infatuated” and “Intoxicated/I’m in rapture”. Lastly, ‘Test Me’ is a fitting final song, bringing the album to a quiet, thoughtful close with both vocalists singing dispirited lyrics such as “I’ll take it out on you/It’s easier than talking it through”.
I See You is different to The xx’s previous albums, diverting from the moody and often bleak sound they are known for. Gone are the whispering, sparsely orchestrated songs created in a garage that served as a recording studio for the first album. As a result, the new music does not always boast the same ethereal quality that can be found throughout The xx. Nevertheless, The xx have produced a good album, one that is more upbeat than the emotionally volatile debut album, The xx, and superior to the tired, positively despondent second album, Coexist. I See You is a coherent collection of thought-provoking songs that are wholly recognisable as The xx. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the album title and its thematic content of closeness and fragile relationships: their lyrics remain centred on intimacy, longing, passionate emotions and fearful yet sincerely hopeful love.