No matter how you frame it, January is widely regarded as a bit of a bummer. Whether it’s because of the Christmas comedown, the horribly cold weather or the lack of funds in the bank account, the first month of the year has a reputation for being just the worst. So what better time for The xx – who are renowned for their melancholic, downbeat soundscapes – to release their comeback album, I See You, after a five-year absence?
On the face of it, the London trio’s return certainly seems like it’s been perfectly scheduled. Ever since their self-titled debut album propelled them into the spotlight by claiming the 2009 Mercury Prize, The xx have been pigeonholed as being dark and moody due to their distinctive skeletal sound and wardrobe of endless black garments, with their equally minimalist 2012 follow-up, Coexist, doing little to shake off those labels.
In reality, The xx have never been quite as depressing as some have made them out to be, with this view largely the result of their difficult relationship with fame. Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith were reluctant to embrace centre stage in the early days, but as the years have passed they have gradually become more comfortable in their own skin and this newfound confidence is there for all to see on their third LP.
Unsurprisingly, there is a clear influence from Smith’s 2015 solo project In Colour (released under his performance name of Jamie xx), but I See You also sees his bandmates up their game significantly. From the very first euphoric burst of synthetic horns on opener Dangerous, it is almost impossible to miss the added conviction that embodies the record throughout its compact 40-minute runtime.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the sense of playfulness – something which is aptly demonstrated by I See You’s title and colourful album artwork. Lead single On Hold provided an early glimpse of this. It signalled what we could expect from the band’s latest incarnation, balancing the hushed tones and crisp guitar work they are often celebrated for with a tweaked sample of Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).
The sample, in particular, was a complete curveball that transformed what could have been another typically stripped back offering from the trio into something close to a club classic. This is by no means a one-off on I See You, either, with Say Something Loving another example of The xx embracing a more technicolor approach thanks to its luscious, heartwarming synths and Smith’s ingenious use of Do You Feel It? by the Alessi Brothers.
Elsewhere, the more direct I Dare You utilises a straightforward clapped beat and the combined vocal harmonies of Madley Croft and Sims to marvelous effect as they sing about infatuation (“I’ve been a romantic for so long/ all I’ve ever had are love songs”), while both Replica and Lips make use of far more tropical rhythms. In fact, the latter is further evidence of the impact Smith’s vibrant solo record has had on I See You.
Even the band have acknowledged the prominent role In Colour played in the creation of their latest release. Yet for all the talk of Smith’s Mercury Prize-nominated album, I See You is undoubtedly a team effort. This is underlined by one of the album’s standout tracks, Performance, which is a fragile and beautifully intricate examination of the crippling self-doubt that has previously dogged The xx.
“You’ll see me hurting/ when my heart breaks/ I’ll put on a performance/ I’ll put on a brave face,” sings Madley Croft with her mesmerising and tender vocals. She is equally compelling on Brave For You, where she addresses her parents’ deaths, before Test Me concludes the LP with an eerie ode to the band’s own past troubles over a sparse piano melody – a poignant reminder of how sometimes less is more when it comes to The xx.
Nobody recognises this point more than the band themselves, which is why I See You is such an overwhelming success. “It’s basically us understanding each other better,” says Smith, and he is right. The xx have taken in all the experiences and lessons they have learned since their breakthrough and come up with their most adventurous and quietly uplifting release to date. It’s so good, it may even banish those January blues.