The xx Return with Bold Minimalism in I See You

January 20, 2017

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The xx simultaneously developed and contradicted their established style with the release of their new album I See You. The band has been described as “minimalist” and “shy” by their critics, yet I See You opens with a burst of horns and maintains an energetic base throughout their opening track, “Dangerous.” Even the lyrics emphasize having the courage to overcome fear: “They say you are dangerous / But I don’t care / I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared.”

The album maintains elements of The xx’s signature style, with discussions of insecurity and predominantly soft tracks with conversational, small-range vocals. The dramatic pauses and sparse tracks characteristic of their previous album, Coexist (2012), reappear in songs such as “Performance” and “Brave For You,” mimicking the intense, quiet struggle to deal with anxiety and insecurity, but this style no longer dominates the band’s overall sound. Songs like “Dangerous” and “I Dare You” maintain a compelling beat and incorporate relatively energetic lyrics.

Undoubtedly, The xx are beginning to overcome their famous shyness. They certainly admit that their anxieties continue to be present in their work, confessing in the song “Say Something Loving,” “Here come my insecurities / I almost expect you to leave.” There is, however, a new confidence that enables The xx to persevere — more openness about their emotions in the delivery of the lyrics, and subtle offers of support for others who struggle with insecurity. In “Brave For You,” vocalist Romy Madley Croft discusses a deeply personal topic: her own deceased parents. Croft sings clearly with a voice distinct from the instrumentals as she describes deriving strength from her struggle: “So I will be brave for you / Stand on a stage for you / Do the things that I’m afraid to do.” It is as though Croft is reminding audiences to be strong when facing life’s difficulties, even though they may still feel sad and scared and times.

Most importantly, I See You demonstrates The xx’s musical skill and versatility, particularly in creating diversity within their minimalist style. Neither Croft nor Oliver Sim have notable vocal range or depth, but their subtle nuance and conversational exchanges interact with the instrumentals to provide emotional depth through their own unique sound. “On Hold” is a creative masterpiece, as Croft and Rim engage in a couple’s emotional break-up dialogue, exchanging distinct emotions and expressing difficult misunderstandings. As complexities and tensions build, the slow instrumentals gain intensity and momentum as the vocals amplify. Producer Jamie xx then experiments with the addition of snippets from “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” by Daryl Hall and John Oates, successfully incorporating one unique musical layer at a time  while maintaining both minimalism and diversity of sound in a song that encompasses some of The xx’s most profound talent sets.

Jamie xx’s experimentation is part of what distinguishes I See You from the The xx’s two prior albums, including increased autotune and occasional electronic pulses. The album consequently connects to a range of genres, from minimalist alternative to electronic pop, complementing lyrical styles that range from poetically descriptive discussions of “I Dare You” to the repetitive, catchy choruses of “Dangerous.”

By the end of the album, The xx returns to a style more similar to Coexist (2012), as “Test Me” features long pauses, long periods of simplistic instrumental, and haunting vocal echoes. However, the musical similarity highlights the divergence of lyrical meaning from the shyness and anxiety that The xx has focused on in the past. The song opens with their classic self-doubt, but progresses with a challenge to the listener: “test me, see if I break.” The xx is suggesting that they were, in fact, strong from the start; despite struggles with anxiety and insecurity, the trio has managed to carry on to achieve immense success. I See You concludes with expansive echoes and instrumentals, inviting space for contemplation following The xx’s transformative message.

The xx has returned with a bolder, more confident version of the iconic sound that garnered their immense popularity. The xx has cemented their role as expert pioneers of their unique brand of minimalist experimentation, and pushes forward with pop culture’s most confident expression of dealing with anxiety.


Voice’s Choices: “Dangerous”, “On Hold”

Emily Jaster
Emily Jaster is the former features editor and former Halftime Leisure editor for The Georgetown Voice. When she's not writing for the Voice, you can usually find her writing poetry or wandering around art galleries and concert halls.


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