Note: This album review originally appeared on the Berkeley BSide, over here.
As the 2010s enter their eighth year, I’ve taken considerable time to reflect upon the decade’s most influential artists. Bands like Beach House came in strong, put out consistent LPs with only minor variations on their signature sound, and still sound pretty good. Kendrick Lamar entered under the radar, blew up — and seems to get better and more ambitious still with each release. Tame Impala and Father John Misty began manning the helms of guitar music and have since sought a bigger, more intricate sound on each LP. And then there’s the xx, who started the decade as teenagers winning a deserved Mercury Prize (best British album) on the back of their stunning, emotional debut, xx; proceeded to release an underrated sophomore effort a few years later that garnered a collective “wasn’t as good as their first one” from the music community; then disappeared for five years, showing up only in passing on Jamie xx’s 2015 solo album, In Colours, which was showered in critical praise.
And thus the scene is set for I See You, which has every former Obama years teenager (or anyone who’s discovered the magical powers of xx) frothing at the mouth to hear with raw abandon what heartbreaking, back-and-forth, sexually-charged minimalist ballads Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim will conjure up next. And what did they receive? The guy giving a pulse to the otherwise fleeting spirits of songs from xx. The producer who has so heavily imprinted the sound he cultured on In Colours that The xx’s two vocalists, who once illuminated the darkness of their songs with something human, have been relegated side players acting to reinterpret that classic xx sound. In a word, they received Jamie.
I See You is still an impressive album, and not without its highlights. The horns on opener “Dangerous” and the bassy, shuffling dance beat the song develops kick the album off with an energy previously unseen on an xx song. The string arrangement on the bleak mid-album ballad “Performance” are striking and beautiful. The climaxing guitars and thundering percussion on “A Violent Noise” similarly creates the song’s mood and drives home its themes and ideas, while the penultimate “I Dare You” builds steam around an uptempo ‘80s handclap beat, masterfully pulling in a guitar, synth or voice at a time in an ongoing, song-length crescendo. Jamie xx is still one of the game’s top producers, and his skills are on display throughout I See You. The vocal samples he includes (such as Hall and Oates), however, feel like missteps, notably on “Say Something Loving” and “On Hold”, where the presence of someone else’s voice feels like it penetrates an intimacy between Romy and Oliver that has been there since the earliest xx songs.
“I Dare You” suffers a similar fate – Oliver’s opening line of “I’m in love with it / Intoxicated / I’m in rapture / From the inside I can feel that you want to”always invokes a cringe – and the song’s energetic build makes me think that with the right featured rapper and hook it could have been a standout Jamie xx single, but is instead weighed down by a chorus of Romy and Oliver’s pleading, “Go on I dare you!” The mid-album “Replica”, which incorporates Oliver’s bass and Romy’s guitar lines better than almost any other track on the record, endures as a four-minute slog through the vocalists’ tedious melody lines and emotionless harmonies, offering nothing new or compelling lyrically (“And as if I tried to, I turned out just like you / Do we watch and repeat?”).Which gives rise to what I feel is I See You’s primary flaw: Jamie xx has created Jamie xx songs that are forced to conform to The xx formula, and this pairing is more often than not at odds with itself. “On Hold” is the biggest offender, coming across at first like something that could have fit snugly on In Colours, but is rewritten to feature some of the blandest xx lyrics to date (“My young heart chose to believe / We were destined / Young hearts all need love”). Two vocalists must trade verses in a song that really didn’t need any, and the dripping, reverb-drenched guitar lines that once encompassed the entire skeletal structure of an xx song, now feel like unnecessary pieces to be incorporated like any other sample or synth because this isn’t a Jamie xx song, this is a The xx song.
And here we arrive at the second and fatal flaw of “I See You” — when did The xx become a fucking zero in the lyrics department? After listening through I See You a handful of times, I found myself asking, “Have xx lyrics always been this generic and uninteresting?” Checking back in on xx and Coexist, I arrived at ‘No’. Alas, it seems that aging into their late twenties has left Oliver and Romy devoid of unique ways to talk about their relationships. xx was at times cryptic and at times direct, and most lines felt like being witness to a sentiment more personal and arresting than could typically be translated through music. But reading through I See You’s lyrics sheet leaves the impression that these lines could have been written by anyone at all.
Take “Brave for You”, a song about Romy’s deceased parents that unfortunately unfolds as something pulled from the latest Disney movie — “And when I’m scared / I imagine you’re there / Telling me to be brave”. I’m also pretty over hearing Romy go on about putting on a “Performance” (“You won’t see me hurting / When my heart it breaks) — the sad clown pantomime has been around at least since 17thcentury Italian opera, and her addition to the canon is lacking in any new or interesting spin. The closer “Test Me” has been billed as the first xx song to openly acknowledge being written about dynamics within the group, but lines like “Ceiling’s falling down on me / You look but you never see” are so generic that they could be applied to any fifteen year-old that’s ever felt sad. Perhaps this universality is something The xx were shooting for on I See You, but if I wanted pop music lacking anything other than two-dimensional sentiment I would just grab the newest Chainsmokers’ single and call it a day.
So that’s where we sit: comparing The xx, arguably the most influential indie rock group of the last decade, to The Chainsmokers. Of course, from a musical and production standpoint, Jamie isn’t even playing the same sport as those guys, but the sentiment is the same — this band has lost what made them different and unique, and I doubt very much that this record would be attracting so much attention had it not been released by The xx. At the decade’s onset, everything the band touched felt innovative. Now, by its end, they’ve become just another face in a crowd of imitators. The xx was wonderful because they stripped away everything to make their music as naked and pure as possible, and the filling out of their sound with a dozen new ideas has revealed that The xx in 2017 just isn’t a very compelling act. The group introduces nothing new to the current musical landscape. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath for LP 4 — there are better things going on in indie rock and pop to waste time waiting around for a group that’s been left in the dust of their own prodigious wake.