The first The xx album was one of the best self-contained releases of the last decade. It’s a record with a sound that appeared to come from nowhere. There was no larger media narrative and no grand purpose — just a series of sounds that seemed to line up in perfect sequence with each other.
2009’s xx is an album without a single wasted note. It’s a quiet work that never overplays its hand, with only three musicians working in harmony with minimal overdubs. They used empty space to their advantage more than any other band, keeping the guitar riffs light and the vocals shy. The most sprawling, epic track xx offers is still only a two-minute intro instrumental.
Yes, The xx arrived completely formed, fully mature and totally compelling. Yet, there was some nervousness about the group’s future. If you make a perfect, tight, mistake-free record at the beginning of your career, where do you go from there?
The closest analogue to The xx had already suffered a worrisome fate. New York City’s Interpol, one of the leaders of the city’s then-revitalized guitar scene that also included The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, put out Turn on the Bright Lights in 2002 to critical acclaim and fanfare.
Like xx, Turn on the Bright Lights is a moody, lonely, unmistakably modern record. It hides its feelings behind obscure lyrics and fine-tunes its instrumental arrangements to achieve awe-inspiring efficiency. While Interpol is more traditionally “rock” than The xx, both bands’ debuts are melancholy masterpieces.
Once a band hits a perfect formula, it’s hard to improve. Interpol followed up Bright Lights with 2004’s Antics, a very good album that nonetheless feels like Bright Lights, Part Two. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but it lacks a spark, because we have heard all these songs before.
However, attempts to expand on the band’s signature sound fell flat, first with 2007’s Our Love to Admire and then with two more follow-up records. Greater ambitions and a desire for a more “epic” scale to their songs opened the band up to missteps and songs filled with hot air, which were both antithetical to what made Interpol great. The band never solved the problem of how to evolve, stay great and stay true to themselves all at the same time.
The xx seemed to be following the exact same blueprint, as 2012’s Coexist follows a similar path as Antics. Coexist is a mostly forgettable rehash of all the sounds that made The xx great in the first place. It’s a record that continues to see the musicians do what they’re most talented at, but — particularly with its lack of well-crafted melodies — Coexist never gives a listener much reason to choose it over xx.
At least for this fan, there were questions about whether The xx would even continue after Coexist. In the years following, the group’s lone non-singing member — Jamie xx — made a name for himself as a solo electronic artist.
2015’s In Colour was a breath of fresh air for both Jamie and the genre of electronic music. xx perfectly captured the vibes of a night out in London, balancing hard-hitting beats on tracks like “Gosh” with more meditative, slow-burn songs that showed an unusual patience for mainstream EDM. Plus, the joyful Young Thug collaboration “Good Times” was the indie fan’s song of the summer. As the accolades poured in, it became easy to think of The xx as one of Jamie’s early projects and not his main gig.
But In Colour might actually be what saved The xx, because earlier this month, a revitalized-sounding group dropped the incredible I See You. It’s a record that seems to take everything Jamie xx learned while making his solo album and seamlessly blends it with what made The xx already great.
I See You still features the unmatched vocal chemistry of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, but now there are synthetic horns, piano loops and drum tracks programmed for dancefloor movement. In all, the new record sounds like a fresh, fun remix album of The xx’s debut. It’s an exhilarating reinvention, and The xx likely wouldn’t have found the key to breaking the formula if they hadn’t spent that time apart.
“xx seemed to exist infinitely in hushed, empty spaces — void of vitality and shrouded in shadows,” wrote Daily music writer Shima Sadaghiyani in her review of the latest The xx album. “In contrast … I See You, bursts with color.”
There’s a much-too-easy In Colour pun to be made here, but in truth, that’s exactly what The xx needed. The new album solves what was once the band’s only problem, allowing them to take risks and evolve without betraying their talents. The xx are still tight, fully formed and mature, but they now have an extra dimension added onto their signature sound. They have stepped out of a crisp, minimal black-and-white world and entered a dynamic new era of dizzying possibilities.