British indie-pop outfit the xx mixed the sensual quiet of peak Sade and the chilly guitar antics of post-punk on its acclaimed 2009 self-titled debut album and later found a way to pare things down even further on 2012’s close-mic’d wisp of a sophomore release Coexist. The hushed grace of the latter came as a shock to anyone paying close attention to individual band member's moves in the intervening years, when producer/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie xx) became something of a formidable remixer apart from singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft. In the wake of work like Jamie’s full-length Gil Scott-Heron remix project We’re New Here, which was sampled in Drake and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “Take Care,” Coexist felt like retrenchment, like an abandonment of the dance-pop possibilities Jamie examined in cuts like the solo single “Far Nearer.”
As the xx caught its breath after touring the world behind Coexist, Jamie concluded work on what would become his 2015 solo debut In Colour. The album presented a way forward not just for the producer, whose “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” carefully leveraged trap and dance-hall values underneath famous guests Young Thug and Popcaan, but also for the xx itself. “Loud Places” carried a yearning vocal from Romy to a windswept chorus, its lyric about partying in clubs to forget a breakup made more dramatic by the noisy, euphoric production that washed her out at the end of every verse. This week the xx finally makes lively use of its star producer on the new I See You, where Jamie augments Romy and Oliver’s foundation of comely vocals, bass, and guitar with a lush array of synths, samples, pianos, strings, and brass. It feels like the Technicolor unveiling of a world hinted at in and around In Colour.
I See You finds the xx communing with modern music rather than providing shelter from it as they have in their previous work. Opener “Dangerous” makes its ebullience plain at the top with a loud fanfare of horns and the most adroitly dance-friendly drum programming in the band’s short, sweet repertoire thus far. Romy and Oliver do as well with this kind of pep as with the tiny ice sculptures of xx and Coexist. They bounce sprightly vocals off each other in “Dangerous” and also “Replica,” staving off the jitters as the former dallies with a troublesome significant other, and the latter asks, “Do I chase the night, or does the night chase me?” Uplifting music doesn’t lift the lyrical concerns out of knotty relationship drama that powers the band’s finest moments on record. The xx still cozies up inside of minor melodies and midnight moods as one would a favorite blanket, but this time out, it’s a patchwork quilt.
The temptation to make this a straightforward dance album must’ve been strong, and early I See You single “On Hold” seemed to point to that. But Jamie isn’t commandeering the xx here so much as helping to tease its sound into new areas, to play around with more space and ideas. There are killer sample-based dance tunes that will slide comfortably into future DJ sets, but we also get Caribbean textures on “Say Something Loving” and “Lips,” glacial electronics on “Brave for You,” foreboding strings on “Performance,” and more than a whiff of U2 in “I Dare You.” The xx embraces new styles and opens itself up to hooks and embellishments it staved off throughout Coexist, coming away, in the process, with an album that recoups on the promise of the debut and bridges the post-punk revival they came up around with the present pop EDM-ocracy without ever pandering to either side. It’s not a reinvention but a reaffirmation, proof that intimacy can be achieved through more wide-ranging means than bedroom eyes and quiet whispers.