Every once in a great while, you find an album that makes you instantly nostalgic for a place that you have never been, but feel like you know intimately. I See You, the third album by British Band The xx is such an album.
Clocking at a brisk 39 minutes, I See You is an album that exists in the briefest moments of the early morning world. Listening to it feels like walking alone through a vast Railway Terminal like London’s Victoria Station or even Union Station in St. Paul around 4:30 AM. The album feels like the sound of the softest footsteps bouncing endlessly throughout this kind of space giving way to the comfort of warm coffee and early morning loneliness. Much of the credit for the album’s vast echoing sound must go the band’s keyboardist, DJ, and Producer, Jamie ‘xx’ Smith. Smith is clearly the breakout star of this record, deftly giving the recording a sense of space and atmosphere.
Insistent synth claxon horns begin the album’s opening track “Dangerous” and vanish into a funky bass groove that carries singers Oliver Sims and Romy Madley Croft’s voices aloft with an engaging melody that bobs and weaves over the idea that the very pursuit of a relationship, either internally or externally, is worth any risks that others may warn of.
Despite the energetic start, this album should not be confused as any type of “dance” record or “club banger” as the majority of songs feature little, if any drum or percussion effects. The primary rhythm comes from Sim’s bass and Croft’s guitar work. The sound is moody, ambient and dreamy. This is an album designed to be listened to alone. The Cure’s second album Seventeen Seconds in particular seems a primary reference throughout the album.
“Replica” is song that finds the protagonist at a crossroads, wondering about identity and the role of decisions as they struggle to ward off mistakes made by previous generations. It plays off the long-standing struggle between avoiding, and also becoming, one’s parents in the end. Musically, the song reflects this tension before opening up at the 1:43 minute mark with a beautiful keyboard line that seems to dance with the Croft’s “Cure-like” guitar melody.
On the other side of the coin, Croft writes about the death of her parents as a motivating force in the sadly beautiful “Brave For You.” Seeking to branch out and take risks, the elegantly intense musical backing by Smith and Sims give support without detracting any of the uplifting sadness of the lyric.
The immediately catchy “On Hold” is built around one of the cleverest samples you will encounter this year. Joining together two tiny segments of Daryl Hall’s voice from the 1981 Hall & Oates classic “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” to create the chorus’ hook shows the skill that Smith brings to the ensemble. The song uses the tension, and metaphor, of being put on hold to describe a relationship. A seeming impasse is occurring with each party forced to decide to continue the call or to just hang up. The song ends without any true, or easy resolution.
Each song on the album can be viewed as a response to its predecessor, and following “On Hold” with an uplifting melodic song a bout infatuation, “I Dare You” is the perfect counterpoint as the album moves towards a close.
Lyrically, the band avoids gender pronouns throughout the songs on I See You. This lends the work an interesting depth. On surface, it is easy to imagine that the male and female vocal leads are engaged in a conversation through the songs. It is also entirely possible to just treat the songs lyrically as perhaps a conversation between both the masculine and feminine sides of a single person. How you, as a listener, approach each song is entirely up to you and the album changes as a result, giving a depth that extends beyond the usual superficial nature of Pop Music.
The album concludes with the gentle “Test Me.” Instead of the confident brassy synth horns that kick off the album, here they take a subdued, mournful approach that enables this song about strained relationships and emotional distance to linger in space much like the subject matter itself. In the end, the album does not answer any of the questions it raises, leaving the listener to determine their own resolution to the stories they have heard. It is this very ambiguity in both lyric and sound that raise this album from merely great to spectacular.
Daniel G. Moir has forgotten more about music than all the rest of us know combined. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org