The arrival of a new year triggers self-reflection and determination that typically flounders in subsequent weeks and months, as reality comes roaring back and stifles many of the more ambitious New Years aspirations. Countless earnest souls flock to the gym to plant the seeds of better, healthier habits that will stick around for a few weeks before their last gasp in….oh, probably mid-February. They can’t be faulted for trying to turn a new page, but the impact of such resolutions is rarely lasting.
And yet exceptions always exist to shut up the cynics. The xx kick off 2017 with a new album and a spring in their step, refreshed and reinvigorated after a half-decade hiatus. Their third record, I See You, refuses to abandon their signature sound while still nudging it in engaging and unexpected new directions. The style they became famous for is present through much of I See You, but it more commonly serves as a backdrop or starting point rather than the crutch their critics have suggested. Such a balancing act is a feat commonly attempted but difficult to master, but here the band sounds strikingly assured and confident. The horns that announce their arrival in “Dangerous” are an early signal that I See You will not be a retread.
This sort of boldness is in some ways new territory for the xx. While their previous work was masterfully produced, it thrived on their fragility and defined itself with its vulnerability. xx, their 2009 debut, sharply defined their sound – haunting, intimate R&B, backed with Jamie xx’s beats but frequently centered around sparse, reverb-tinged guitar, throbbing bass, and confessional lyrics. The backdrop was refined, but the human element felt broken and uneasy, afraid and insecure.
While this cocktail was successful on the xx’s first album, their sophomore effort, 2012’s Coexist, was deferential to the formula to a fault. The album doubled down on the tender intimacy of their first LP, pushing its minimalism even further. This was a mistake; Coexist feels so lightweight it might float away, and while it masters the iciness that proved alluring on their debut, such efforts succeed at the expense of memorable moments and melodies. Far more interesting ideas were explored on In Colour, Jamie xx’s vibrant, Young Thug-featuring and musically varied 2015 solo album.
Such stagnation is unsurprising for a band who masters a niche sound, but I See You feels like the sophomore effort the xx were meant to release. Several songs – powered by adventurous samples and upbeat production – have a propulsive, infectious energy that would have been unthinkable on previous xx projects. Yet it still manages to feel like an organic progression rather than forced experimentation – in large part, perhaps, because Jamie dipped his toes in these waters throughout In Colour. “A Violent Noise” is one such example, utilizing quiet much in the way the band always has, careening from near-silence to buoyant energy effortlessly, without inciting whiplash. Lead single “On Hold” (performed in November on Saturday Night Live, complete with some of 2016’s most unfortunate dance moves) is a uniquely effective pop song, blending their newfound affection for dance music with an addictive hook and a strangely effective Hall and Oates sample. “I Dare You” is similarly undeniable.
But this is not Coldplay abandoning “Yellow” for glossy Avicii collaborations. The xx’s signature fragility is still very much in place, and is a central factor for many of the album’s most powerful moments. Romy Madley Croft sounds as broken and alone as she ever has on “Performance,” elevating relatively standard xx fare with a nuanced but impassioned vocal delivery. Her work is even better on “Brave For You,” a song written for her dead parents that manages to be genuinely uplifting without ever slipping into cheesiness. “Test Me” is reportedly about tensions within the band, and its biting lyrics and eerie, cold production combine to make it an album highlight.
Much has been made – here and elsewhere – of the evolution of sound we hear from the band throughout I See You, particularly in contrast to the safe approach embraced with Coexist. This is the most striking element at play during first listen, but at the end of the day, I See You works because these are very good songs, meticulously crafted and full of character and honesty. It is too early to say whether the future of the xx will bring additional reinvention or a relapse into old habits, but with I See You, they kick off 2017 as a better band than they were a year ago.