In 2009, The xx emerged into the world with the minimalist dream that was their self-titled debut; xx was an album stripped down to its bare bones, the startling intensity of Oliver Sim’s and Romy Madley Croft’s voices cracking every song open to its core.
This bleached vulnerability helped contribute to the album’s attention-grabbing novelty but also reduced it to a bleak puzzle of black and white pieces. xx seemed to exist infinitely in hushed, empty spaces — void of vitality and shrouded in shadows.
In contrast, The xx’s newest release, I See You, bursts with color.
I See You takes the basic ideas introduced in xx and builds off of them, initiating complexity and depth; this album still holds on to The xx’s original, uncluttered sound, but adds more to its straightforward simplicity, mainly through lively and unpredictable background melodies. It is these melodies which illustrate the influence of In Colour, band member Jamie xx’s debut solo album. The release of In Colour in 2015 seemed to bolster Jamie xx’s confidence in the creation of I See You, allowing for the formation of songs that stray from The xx’s standard sound.
Instead of songs composed of only Sim’s and Croft’s voices with few other distractions, I See You pushes the background music into the spotlight. In “Lips,” the driving force behind the song comes not through the vocals but rather through the accompanying rhythms; the gradual build of clapping beats and subtle instrumentals perfectly matches the celestial repetition of “Just your love / Just your shadow” and grows like ivy up the side of Croft’s airy vocals, culminating in a song that sparks with raw sensuality.
Alongside the background music, Sim’s and Croft’s voices have also evolved. Turning every song into a conversation, they build off each other organically, intertwining into beautiful harmonies then unraveling only to come back together again moments later. They approach every note with an easy familiarity. In “Dangerous,” Sim introduces us to pointedly buoyant background rhythms with “They say we’re in danger / But I disagree.” A few seconds later, Croft adds her voice to his, a light layer that rounds out the sharper edges of Sim’s sound. There is a dynamism that exists in “Dangerous,” introduced by the symphonic back-and-forth between Sim’s vocals and Croft’s vocals, allowing the song to evenly shift from one note to the next.
The same concept can be seen in “I Dare You.” Even though this song is mellower than “Dangerous,” Sim and Croft work together in the same way: Effortlessly melding their voices together for the chorus, then just as effortlessly breaking them apart. This complete control and maturity Sim and Croft have over their respective vocals allow “I Dare You,” as well as every other song on the album, to feel perfectly balanced despite their ever-changing elements.
None of the songs on I See You are static. Instead, like waves, the songs are constantly ascending and receding, moving and shifting off of one another; the varying components of differing vocals and commanding background melodies combining to form songs that are sprawling in their animation.
This album is more than just a definite collection of songs; the beauty of I See You comes in its growth. Both in The xx’s growth as a band from their first album to this one and also the growth that can be seen within I See You itself, in the way every note builds off its predecessor. This album’s strength doesn’t come from its individual songs, but rather the way the songs are woven together to produce a complete entity, at times achingly simple and at other times vastly complex, but always constant in the way every moment is charged with energy.