The xx Deliver Mixed Bag on Third Album, 'I See You'

One of my favorite memories is the time I sang happy birthday with a crowd of strangers to Oliver Sim, lead male vocalist of The xx, as the clock struck midnight in the middle of their concert. I was as close as possible to the stage without being in the VIP pit, and my 14-year-old self could hardly contain her excitement at seeing her favorite band live.

The vocals of Romy Madley Croft, The xx’s female lead, sounded infinitely better in person than they’d sounded on my headphones. Beams of blue light spread out over the crowd, illuminating the fog swirling in the air. The fact that Oliver turned 23 in the middle of the set was just the icing on the cake.

For much of 8th through 10th grade, The xx held the top spot on my list of favorite bands. I remember listening to their self-titled debut album obsessively, and I have vivid memories of the band’s songs as my mental soundtrack to different life events. Though the general critic consensus on Coexist, their sophomore album, was that it was lackluster, my devotion to the group continued nonetheless.

Though my tastes have broadened and diversified since I was 14, The xx will always hold a place in my heart. So, naturally, when their third album, I See You, was released on Jan. 13, I couldn’t wait to give it a listen.

Before the album dropped, the track “On Hold” was released as a single in November 2016. This song set a high bar for the forthcoming album. It perfectly features an edited track sample from “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” by Hall and Oates, a personal favorite of mine. Though “On Hold” remains true to The xx’s moody electronic roots, it is much less minimalist and much more funky. The song is upbeat and bold, yet the lyrics remain bittersweet. The song could perhaps be classified as one third R&B, one third pop, and one third electronic, with all these moving parts synthesizing into one cohesive, groovy track. I listened to it on repeat when it came out.

Nevertheless, I See You failed to meet my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid record, and even made it to the Best New Music section of Pitchfork. Perhaps I liked “On Hold” too much for the rest of the album to have a fair chance. Perhaps I’ve just simply outgrown my taste for The xx. I’m not sure.

The record has strong production. Jamie xx is truly a great producer, and the nuances of his production are lost if you don’t listen to the album with headphones. The first time I listened I was driving in my car, and it was a very different experience from when I put my headphones on. As a result, the album really sounds like Jamie xx’s solo LP, In Colour. I absolutely loved In Colour, but Jamie’s production doesn’t seem to mesh with Romy and Oliver’s breathy, uninspiring vocals. I’d be curious to see what I See You sounds like as an instrumental album.

Despite my criticism, I do enjoy a handful of tracks on I See You. The album’s opener, “Dangerous,” which was also released as a single before the rest of the album, kicks off the record with blaring horns and a sturdy bassline. The song’s only drawback is its stereotypical lyrics, such as, “They say you are dangerous, but I don't care/I'm going to pretend that I'm not scared.” How many more times are we going to have to hear songs centered around romanticized toxic relationships?

“Lips” is also an album highlight. It starts off with echoing isolated vocals by Trio Mediaeval before kicking into a grooving beat. “Replica” is another favorite of mine, feeling thoroughly like The xx’s old material–minimal, moody, sensual–yet incorporating just enough changes in style to make the song fresh.

“Say Something Loving” is, in my opinion, the worst song on I See You, with an annoying chorus desperately pleading the listener to “say something loving” over and over again in a grating tonality. Sorry, Romy, it’s not happening.

Every time I’ve listened to I See You I’ve discovered something new, so not all hope is lost. Perhaps after a few more listens it will become my favorite album of 2017. In the meantime, however, I’m hoping that Jamie xx will branch off from his bandmates and release another solo album. The conventions of The xx seem to be holding him back.