When The xx released their debut album, the biggest band in America was The Black Eyed Peas. That was the sound of pop in 2009: frenetic, speaker-frying party music, slick with vocal effects and champagne-popping optimism. If you wanted any subtlety from pop music, any rest, hits like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” yelled back at you that they’d sleep when they were dead.
In the eight years since then, pop music has changed remarkably. We’re now living in the era of the chill banger: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Rihanna’s “Work,” Hailee Steinfeld’s “Starving.” Even EDM has cooled down, with The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came For” swapping out gargantuan dubstep drops for soft, glitchy vocals and icy production. This sea change in the sound of pop’s mainstream can be traced directly back to The xx, whose quiet, slow-burn grooves predated the shift by nearly a decade.
On The xx’s first two records, the airy duets of whispery singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim begged for a close listen with good headphones, as producer Jamie Smith layered wispy electric guitar and trip-hop drumbeats underneath. And while the band’s signature sound became an unexpected success in the U.S., the question facing its first album in five years, I See You, is: Where does this band go from here? Can its stripped-down sound still stand out in 2017?
The xx of I See You know they can’t make the same music they’ve always made, even if mainstream pop has caught up to it. Instead, their new record reworks their sound in ways that feel necessary. The album opens with a bracing blare of horns on “Dangerous” before sliding into a skittering, bass-heavy beat, with sirens falling and fading in the distance. “You are dangerous, but I don’t care / I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared,” Croft and Sim sing over the track’s surprisingly funky instrumentals, their once shiveringly coy voices fuller and clearer. It’s obvious that the band is pulling comfortably from Smith’s solo work as Jamie xx: His Grammy-nominated 2015 record In Colour was an upbeat remix of the moody pop he built his career on, and throughout the band’s new album, you can hear a continuation of the classic club music sounds he used there. On the easygoing “Replica,” Smith’s favorite steel drums flutter in and out, merging with Croft’s cool, noodling guitar. And on the record’s single, “On Hold,” the band’s spacey sound feels brand-new, with a warped Hall & Oates vocal sample and soaring synths.
Ever since they became widely known, The xx have had a reputation for being shy — unsurprising, considering their all-black goth looks, timid stage presence, and breathy lyrics about finding shelter in shadows. I See You, from its emboldened singing to its newly textured production, might suggest that this is a band that has gained a new sense of confidence. Thankfully, though, that doesn’t mean it’s given up making music for yearning wallflowers. Much of I See You explicitly addresses the act of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, whether it’s running into the arms of a dangerous love or standing, finally, bravely on a stage. “If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say?” Croft begins in a trembling tenor as a cluster of violins hum under her voice on “Performance.” Elsewhere, on “A Violent Noise,” Sim and Croft sing an anthem for the introverted clubgoer, who meets nights full of music and excess with unease. The song is also, perhaps, a nod to Sim’s struggles with alcoholism, which he’s spoken about in recent interviews. “Am I too high? / Am I too proud? / Is the music too loud for me to hear?” he sings as reverbed guitar and lush pizzicato synths build up around his voice. “Now I go out, but every beat is a violent noise.”
“Intimate” is a word that often comes up when describing The xx. They make big music venues feel small. Their reputation shrouds them in a cloak of mystery, so that when they do step up to the mic to coo something as simple as “Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” you feel like you’re reading their diary. They take heartbreak and loneliness and strip them to their core. There is a fragility to The xx’s approach to writing about human connection that, until now, they’ve met with music that’s just as fragile: xylophones, simple percussion, the singular power of a bass guitar line. In taking a step forward from that sparse sound, washing their perspectives in maximalist color, they’ve also further magnified the eternally self-aware heart of their music. In a time when violent, social noise couldn’t be more present on our screens and in our feeds, The xx’s new music seems to meet a contemporary anxiety. On I See You, The xx don’t just rhapsodize about what could be, what could happen, if they face the world outside of their bubble. For the first time, they’re actually moving.