With the triumphant brass sounding off on opening track “Dangerous”, the third album from minimalists-turned-festival headliners The xx is more than a rung in their ascent. Looking to their 2009 debut, the trio’s modus was a coy modesty that charmed without being presumptuous. Underneath the pleasing current of music beat an awkward romantic heart, edged to the forefront via the tentative duet of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. The distance between then and 2017’s I See You is years of experiences, both within and away from their group dynamic. Following LP Coexist has moments of both progress and regression, inching tentatively toward a fuller production with expressive vocals but shrinking from the necessary dare of a full-on plunge. What shook up things is the star turn from Jamie xx as a solo electronic producer, gaining notoriety while finding his own soulful expressions. Beginning with his Gil-Scott Heron collaboration in 2011 and following up on his 2015 hit In Colours, his deft influence is the now the band’s directive. What was once understated exercise is now spirited abundance on I See You, both in the The xx’s sample-driven sound and newfound aplomb.
So what about those trumpets? Those inaugural horn stabs of I See You are a fist-pounding mission statement for a group that is burning down their erstwhile 8 year-old construct. In fact, the entirety of “Dangerous”, the techno-inspired bpm, the assertive intonations, the damn sirens, are all kindling and gasoline for the celebratory bonfire. The unassuming kids from London are legitimate here and their desire to compose club bangers built off their humble foundations no longer need anyone’s permission. As proof of their boldness, Jamie xx takes a sample for “On Hold” from the well-worn fodder of Hall & Oates track “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and loops it into a barely recognizable pulp. Despite the song’s oft used sentiment of relationship anxiety, the tone of “On Hold” proclaims that The xx are not waiting around to explore the limits of possibility.
Outside of the beat-centered production and brazen samples, the great reveal on I See You is the coming of age for Romy Madley Croft as a full-fledged singer. Compare her shy reflections on “Islands” and “Reunion” to the bold assertion of “Danger! Danger!” to kick off the LP. She is not only showcasing confidence through age and experience, but is simply proud of her established vocal chops. The evolution of Romy began with her guest spots for In Colours and those soulful inflections snap in tandem with The xx’s most dance-forward tracks. In contrast to subtler, breathy moments like on “Performance”, Croft’s voice is given the diva treatment in the mix to accentuate each wavering lilt. This is a classic song in the “xx style” that would previously be delivered from the shadows, now bold with exacting artistry. Accented by ambient heartache, the strings punctuate and battle with her pained cries, fully forming the song’s duality while establishing Croft as a blossomed talent.
Coming with the exploration of their new sound is great moments delivered in unexpected ways. Single “Say Something Loving” is I See You’s strongest effort based on a found balance with The xx’s established characteristics and their intriguing experiments. Thick with romance, “Loving” fits the mold of classic R&B rather than the insular neo-soul that is prevalent among the band’s peers. Even the lyrics show a titular spark instead of falling back on tentative language: “You say something loving/ It’s so overwhelming/ The thrill of affection/ Feels so unfamiliar”. These touching moments crop up throughout I See You, taking prototypical efforts like “Replica” and adding urgency through bracing piano builds and some gorgeous lyrical entanglements. “Brave for You” reveals loss by following the Beach House method of woozy delicacy, breaking your heart with each percussive thump and bent pitch. Wrapping the whole package in a affirmative bow is the penultimate track “I Dare You”, humming triumphantly with energy and flourishing love. Beyond the obvious growth these three singular talents have put on display on I See You is the joy of accomplishing something significant. Whether reaffirming friendship, finding a true love, or reaching a new plateau in your art, the thread of realized success winds through the entire album in varied ways, radiating positivity for listeners to eagerly absorb.