If there was ever such a thing as “accidental fame,” an earlier version of London-based pop group The xx might have served as a prime example. Best friends since attending classes together at the Elliott School in Putney, the trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith shared the intimacy of late-night conversations but lacked the onstage chemistry that typically translates to pop success. Madley Croft and Sim, co-fronting the group and playing guitar and bass, respectively, often played with their heads down and their gaze averted while Smith hid in the shadows behind his console. While touring behind their self-titled 2009 debut, The xx seemed to have more in common with the goth kids from South Park than with the other pop bands selling records at their level.
But the same social anxieties that coursed through their concert performances breathed a delicate kind of life into the music itself, resulting in that rarest of phenomena: pop songs that seem to possess an understanding — however slippery and ephemeral — of the human soul. It’s a telltale sign of hackneyed criticism to describe music as “haunting” these days, but The xx are a band that actually warrant the adjective. It’s a quality that originated in the group’s slow, atmospheric grooves and disarmingly confessional lyricism, and it’s one that nearly every major pop artist and producer has attempted to replicate at some point in the 2010s. As it turns out, the same awkwardness that made them such unlikely stars has since become something of a commodity among their mainstream peers. Real estate is booming on the island of misfit toys.
Awkwardness has never entirely left The xx’s repertoire, as the group’s recent performance on Saturday Night Live makes clear. When they arrive at the first instrumental groove in I See You lead single “On Hold”, Madley Croft and Sim engage in a strange, swaying dance that doesn’t quite pass for choreography but appears painstakingly practiced nonetheless. It’s a charming moment of dissonance that nearly distracts from the song’s truly out-of-left-field moment: Smith’s pitch-shifted sample of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”. Here is a smart bit of production that would have seemed out of place on The xx’s strained sophomore effort, 2012’s Coexist, but makes sense within the context of Smith’s 2015 solo debut as Jamie xx, the outstanding In Colour. Add up the creative sampling and the synchronized dancing, and we get a revamped version of The xx that hinges less on awkwardness and anxiety and more on another, unexpected “A” word: ambition.
“On Hold” functions as a fitting introduction to The xx’s brave new world on I See You. Though not quite a dance track, it flickers and grooves more than their past work, gently guiding their sound from a quiet bedroom into a more expansive space. Just as importantly, and despite lyrics that depict a back-and-forth love affair that’s coming to an unexpected end, there’s something weirdly fun about “On Hold”; it almost sounds as if Madley Croft and Sim are smiling slyly at each other across a gulf of heartbreak, taking solace in their shared affection for one another. It’s Smith who makes this interaction possible, taking the lessons he learned while making In Colour to turn The xx’s minimalist, introspective sound inside out.
Indeed, to listen to I See You front-to-back is to realize just how underutilized Smith’s talents have been in the band to this point. Opener “Dangerous” is at first literally stunning, kicking off with a burst of horns that had no place in The xx’s catalog until that very second. The surprises continue, with Sim laying into a assertive bass groove and trading confident vocal melodies with Madley Croft. Again, though, it’s Smith’s shuffling rhythms and off-kilter sound effects that together serve as the track’s pièce de résistance.
Such touches are, thankfully, not a rarity on I See You. In fact, they show up everywhere, from the muted, tropical rhythms of “Lips” to the more driving, straightforward beat of “I Dare You”. The latter may well be an example of Smith learning from Madley Croft and Sim rather than the other way around. “What always surprises me,” he notes in the album’s press release, “is when they just play the two instruments together they come up with things that I could never come up with, so simple that I wish I could.”
Smith oftentimes takes it upon himself to enliven or embellish this simplicity, turning tracks like “Brave for You” — in which Madley Croft addresses her deceased parents — into anthems that oscillate freely between heartbreaking and celebratory. Elsewhere, he practices an impressively mature restraint, easing back and allowing Madley Croft and Sim to prove their mettle as leads. The most obvious example of this arrives at the album’s midpoint in the form of “Performance”, in which Madley Croft’s voice rises high above a sparse guitar line in what will likely go down as one of I See You’s two standout moments.
The other comes in album closer “Test Me”, a brutally honest piano ballad in which Madley Croft exposes some of the cracks that have developed in the group’s relationships over the past couple of years, a tumultuous time in which Sim struggled with alcoholism and Smith asserted himself as a singular creative force. “Just take it out on me/ It’s easier than saying what you mean,” she sings, addressing not a faceless audience but her own bandmates, whose faces she knows all too well. Pop music isn’t supposed to be this personal. Its smooth, contoured edges aren’t supposed to reflect the jagged corners of real life. What makes The xx and I See You so enthralling, then, may not be a particular combination of lyrics and melodies, but the notion that there’s a secret life playing out here — one we may not be entirely privy to, but one that still rings with the sound of truth in all of its complexities.
Essential Tracks: “Dangerous”, “On Hold”, and “Test Me”