Their eponymous opening record and the Coexist follow up were drenched in pensive atmosphere designed to stroke, strangle or stretch the mind from a pair of worthy headphones, quite possibly while glaring broodingly – the brooding was crucial – into some sort of distant horizon.
It’s evident from track one of I See You that this is no longer the case. Large parts of the third studio album from The XX are equally as suited to some big speakers and a dancefloor than solidarity confinement. It’s evident that The XX have re-found their spark, and that a lot of this has to do with the input of Jamie Smith on the back of global success with his breakout solo album In Colour.
It’s easy to say. But it’s also true.
And The XX have no problem flaunting the huge progression of their sound, either. Actually, they’ve been going out of their way to do so.
There remains numerous songs on I See You that could sit happily on either of The XX’s first two albums, but single releases ‘On Hold’ and ‘Say Something Loving’ are not two of them – and album opener ‘Dangerous’ would not fit the template either.
Right from the get-go The XX want you to know that things are different. The group have thrust the sounds least familiar right to the forefront of their album launch. After a second album geared too tightly around trying to appease and re-develop established ideas, the trio now seem comfortable pushing their tight, albeit gripping, comfort zone.
Oli Sims sings on ‘Dangerous’ to open the album: “They say we’re in danger / but I disagree / If proven wrong / shame on me / but you’ve had faith in me so I won’t shy away.”
‘Dangerous’ is a dangerous for The XX. But it’s still The XX, and it’s the start of one of the finest albums we’re likely to hear in 2017.
The group have abandoned their rule to only make music they could play in its entirety live, allowing sampling and opening an array of new doors. We saw this on the singles. ‘On Hold’ samples Hall and Oates and ‘Say Something Loving’ samples the Alessi Brothers. It’s Jamie’s voice in the band, and while bound to irritate segments of their fanbase, it’s brought an exciting spark of diversity and unpredictability to the album.
The thing is, with vocals as distinctive as Remy and Oli, the XX can change their sound and still sound immediately recognisable. A rare privilege. ‘A Violent Noise’ lays lyrics of confusion and solitude over distorted guitars and synths that recall Jamie XX’s ‘Stranger in the Room’. You can dance to that track, even if it is about alcoholic issues, and yet it is very identifiably a song by The XX.
Romy feature ‘Performance’ brings things back to more familiar territory. Slow, furtive, sensitive, thought-provoking, it’s a classic XX song.
Oli’s ‘Replica’ and Romy’s ‘Brave For You’ look to follow suit, only the lyrics are far more revealing than either would likely have been comfortable with back in 2009.
Every choice and sample is still considered as intricately as any noise that ended up in any XX album ever was, there’s just a lot more doors open this time. And with lyrics more delicate and evocative as ever, it makes for an outstandingly engaging listen – progressive, profound, and fragile while still unyielding.
A huge step forward for the group, and one of the best we’ll see in 2017.