I hadn’t listened to THE XX for ages. The quite good and hugely influential debut album seems like a lifetime ago, and the OK second album, the musical equivalent of a football team capably defending a 1-0 lead, appropriately feels like half a lifetime ago. Since then, the sound of those albums has started to wear me out a bit, as loads of bands have used that serious, atmospheric XX thing in order to cover up their lack of lyrics, resulting in some really dull music. It doesn’t help that the band’s songs, even when they’re good, sound like adverts now, either for post-watershed BBC dramas (‘Intro’) or for building societies (‘VCR’). I’m happy to report, though, that the new one, rubbishly entitled I See You, is really good. The first song, ‘Dangerous’, sounds the equal of anything they’ve ever done, with a bold-as-brass brass sample, perfectly interlocking vocals and a creeping tarantula of a bassline. ‘Say Something Loving’, the next one, is even bigger, and is the sound of the XX actually going…upbeat (!!!), with major chords and a rock chorus and everything. While they’re not quite at the level of Motley Crue rotating drum solos yet, there’s a cockiness to the new XX sound that wasn’t there before, and it suits them.
"the band have changed while remaining the same"
‘Performance’ is one of the only songs here that could have fitted on the debut, but Romy Madley-Croft’s vocals and vocal choices are much better on I See You, and sound fuller and less breathy than before. The arrangements are much more interesting and varied too, mixing synths, vocal samples, live strings and goth guitars, all with that chunky, satisfying bass playing. ‘Replica’ is even better; it’s already catchy by the end of the intro, and sounds like a moodier knock-off of Christine and the Queens’ ‘Saint Claude’, which is not a criticism. ‘Brave For You’ is a mild misstep for me, the atmospheric ornamentation not enough to mask the average power-ballad hiding within, but it’s still alright, and crucially doesn’t feel aimless, which the XX occasionally have in the past when the song hasn’t quite matched the sound. I didn’t like the lead single, ‘On Hold’, when I first heard it on the radio, but, as with most things, I was badly wrong. On the album it sounds great, managing to feature a big Hall and Oates sample yet still be excellent and not some mad mess. It’s euphoric without being obvious or clumsy, danceable without sounding like they’ve Gone Dance, something which they constantly flirt with on I See You but cleverly never do completely.
What makes I See You work so well is that the band have changed while remaining the same: there’s still the same meaningless lyrics that somehow have sexual tension threaded into them, still the same black-clad seriousness and feel of the night-time, but enough is different to make the album sound exciting and nothing like a rehash of the old stuff, which the second album was guilty of to an extent I think. And the songs are almost all really good. It’s the XX’s biggest and happiest album yet, and after listening to all three of their records back to back just now, I’m pretty sure it’s their best too.