By Sam Keeling, THE MIAMI STUDENT
The xx is unlike any other band today, simply because nothing about them is as it seems. Looking at the British trio—vocalist-guitarist Romy Madley Croft, vocalist-bassist Oliver Sim and producer-programmer Jamie xx—with their all-black outfits and hair, you might expect them to churn out moody post-punk. However, their exteriors don’t signify gloomy, brooding hipsters. Instead, the xx showcases a genuine vulnerability that stems from timidity and honesty.
What’s even more surprising is their new sound. Their eponymous 2009 debut was a down-tempo R&B stunner in which every guitar note, bass line, and drum beat is precise, sparse and dripping with emotion. Even though they write their songs with an uncanny ear for melodic pop, songs like “VCR” and “Islands” seem to exist on the edge of silence. There are audible spaces between notes that create an atmosphere of isolation and vulnerability.
“The xx” ended up going platinum, turning these shy indie artists into fledgling stars. 2012’s follow-up, “Coexist,” kept the same less-is-more mentality with mixed results. While its opener, “Angels,” is one of the most beautiful tracks of the decade, many others show the xx running in place, unsure where to go.
In the five years since that middling sophomore effort, things changed for the xx. Jamie xx started a solo career and demonstrated that he could engineer much more than a careful beat. His album, “In Colour,” is a vibrant electronica soundscape that offers an adventurous, towering sound untapped by his original group. Sim gave up binge drinking and partying, while Croft began dating (and later became engaged to) fashion designer Hannah Marshall.
For their next album, the xx had two surprises: Jamie xx and blossoming happiness.
The result is “I See You,” which immediately stands out as a bolder, larger and riskier collection of songs. Jamie xx’s beats, synths and samples define tracks like “Dangerous,” “Say Something Loving,” “Lips” and “On Hold.” The finale, “Test Me,” features a whining synthesizer melody that plays like a sequel to Jamie’s solo single “Gosh.” Finally, the xx have proven themselves capable of incorporating new sounds, melting dancehall, disco and electro-pop into their trademark alt-R&B.
Yet through all this upheaval, some things remain the same. The melodies feel as deliberate as before, with no note out of place. Both singers understand their strengths as vocalists, and play to them perfectly. Croft has a particularly magnificent voice that is simultaneously beautiful and sorrowful, and the album is at its best when her ear-candy melodies weave between Jamie xx’s keys. Her solo vocal effort, “Performance,” is heartrending, complete with haunting strings and somber lyrics.
“Performance” is a unique facet of the album because it contains no percussion, but is not an emotional outlier. Vulnerability is a staple of the xx, and it comes in spades on “I See You.” Sim and Croft get more personal than ever, with the former tackling his partying addiction in tracks like “A Violent Noise” and “Replica,” where he asks, “Do I chase the night, or does the night chase me?” Jamie xx supplements the song with melancholy steel drums that sound counterintuitively unhappy, like a person playing reggae music on a rainy day in a vain effort to cheer themselves up.
Meanwhile, Croft addresses her deceased parents in the tender “Brave for You.” This may be the only moment when Jamie xx’s presence is unwanted, as a couple over-aggressive drum breaks interfere with the otherwise gentle track in an anomalous misstep.
While these dramatic moments are strong additions to “I See You,” the album is successful because it injects even the most upbeat songs with vulnerability and emotion. The xx understands something that most other writers of love songs ignore: there is no greater risk than falling head over heels for another person. It’s these moments that you are most vulnerable, when you offer someone your heart and have faith that they won’t break it.
When Sim and Croft sing, “You are dangerous but I don’t care/I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/I won’t say goodbye,” they’re taking that “Dangerous” risk. In these songs, they reveal themselves more than they have in any previous sad song. Their voices go higher and bigger than ever before.
Even though they’re perfectly aware that the result could be the alienation and disillusion chronicled in “On Hold,” they’re willing to take that chance. And in the penultimate track—the greatest piece of music released so far in this new year—they implore the other person to do the same: “Go on, I Dare You.”