31 Jan 2017

I See You by The xx

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 31 January 2017
The xx

The xx Photo: Laura Coulson

Nick Bollinger detects sonic and emotional developments in the lates abum by The xx.

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In the past decade, just three British bands have captured the American imagination sufficiently to earn a gold record there: One Direction, Mumford and Sons and The xx. And if Stateside success is almost the only thing The xx have in common with One Direction or Mumford and Sons, it nevertheless strikes me that the popularity of all three is due in part to the same thing: the fact that America could not have produced any of them.

There was always something so charmingly and inimitably British about The xx that it is no wonder the Americans wanted a piece of it. This is, at heart, a pop band, and yet in a genre where self-promotion is the order of the day, The xx always came across as the opposite: a group of sensitive introverts. While deejay/producer Jamie Smith kept the beats active and the atmospheres alluring, guitarists and front-persons Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim delivered their songs with a kind of supressed passion.

I See You isn’t a record The xx have made before, nor is it one their audience could have imagined seven years ago when they arrived with their stark, self-titled debut.

Since their last outing as a group, Smith (as Jamie xx) has enjoyed considerable solo success, and he’s brought some of the confidence of his In Colour album to the reconvened xx.

But there’s been growth from Croft and Sim too. In  ‘Brave For You’ Croft lifts the lid on her emotions, in a song that is all about vulnerability, specifically in a performing situation. But the emotional temperature is raised further on ‘Say Something Loving’, where Croft and Sim trade lines, then harmonise, on lyrics in which they literally invite each other to open up their feelings. It’s a close-to-classic pop ballad, of the kind that pro-songwriter teams used to pen in the 60s, for a Dusty Springfield or a Cilla Black to take into the emotional stratosphere.

The songcraft is not consistently as high as that, but the four-year gap has certainly seen a development. In fact, Croft reportedly spent some of that time in Los Angeles at writing camps, including a session with One Republic frontman and songwriter-for-hire Ryan Tedder (who has written for everyone from Madonna to – yes – One Direction.) None of those co-writes made this record, but you sense Croft took something from the experience.

‘Performance’ is her diva song; the kind I could imagine Adele covering, albeit in a different sort of arrangement. Yet it’s still steeped in English reserve. The emotion isn’t given lightly. It feels hard won, and is all the more affecting for it.

Songs featured: Dangerous, Brave For You, Say Something Loving, Perfromance, On Hold.

I See You is available on Remote Control.