Ravi Ghosh looks at where The xx can go now in their music career…
Even after two critically acclaimed albums, the fact that The xx don’t immediately command a space in many people’s electronic music conscience is worth remembering as the release of I See You approaches. Their debut album with ‘Intro’s’ dreamy, staccato opening notes emanating seamlessly from Romy Madley Croft’s black Les Paul are, for most people, the lasting sonic and visual images that the Putney-based trio evoke. 2012’s Coexist largely followed the same blueprint – take the reverb-saturated lead single ‘Angels’ for example; especially in live performance, it was these musically skeletal moments of connection between Croft and the fans that made up a large portion of audiences’ sensory impressions of The xx. Then in 2015 came Jamie xx’s dazzling debut In Colour, a record with moments of soaring creativity and a deftness of composition. The pair married to produce episodes of near-spirituality in listening. With fellow band members Sim and Croft both featuring on the album, its influence is now an inescapable and continuing reality for The xx, as critical and fan focus alike shifts slightly further towards the back of the stage onto Jamie Smith’s silicon touch-pads.
‘On Hold’, the first single from the xx’s upcoming third album, showcases a welcome fusion of these creative fragments in what is a neat, if appropriately unspectacular, taster. Jamie xx shows himself yet again to be an astute and incisive selector with Hall & Oates ‘I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)’ being sampled to add a playful tempo to Sim and Croft’s initially pedestrian vocal exchange. If Jamie xx continues to infuse the band’s music with his rich library of soul and electronic jewels, then The xx’s third LP will acquire a richness and texture which may see them again reach the commercial and critical success that their debut, xx, brought. Smith’s ability to not only lift and integrate, but to twist and manipulate his samples all whilst retaining their essential essence, is remarkable – suspend thoughts of ‘I Know There’s Gunna Be (Good Times)’’s opening momentarily, and consider ‘Sleep Sound’ as an example. Smith uses the vocal (taken from The Four Freshmen’s “It’s A Blue World”) to aide the rise and fall of the track’s electronic components, before liberating the harmonic voices with fifteen seconds of the track remaining in what is a poignantly beautiful outro.
The xx need not travel far to further animate their electronic potential and looking inward is critical. Much of what In Colour and ‘On Hold’ allude to already exists in their two LPs, it’s just been partially eclipsed by Croft’s woozy melodies on the classic ‘Intro’, or Sim’s pounding bass on tracks such as ‘Tides’. The band share a label (Young Turks) with artists such as Bullion, Sampha, and the ever-influential John Talabot, and the suitability of their tracks for remixes by a range of skilled producers tells of an electronic prowess that needs uncovering, rather than discovering. Talabot and Pional Blinded’s remix of “Chained” is hypnotic, and the band’s relationship with Four Tet is well documented, with the London-based veteran having traded remixes with Jamie xx. For instance, Four Tet re-imagined “Angels” and “VCR” while Jamie xx stripped back his partner’s 2012 track “Lion” to its most impactful form before adding his own distinctive drum track. Moreover, their 2015 BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix provides yet more insight into their shared tastes, interspersing their own tracks with niche picks ranging from NHK Yx Koyxen to French composer Jean-Philippe Rykiel. Two Spotify playlists curated by Jamie xx and The xx provide some direction for fans looking to map the potential trajectory of the new release; The xx: In the Studio is signposted by the heavyweights of the last eighteen months, with entries from Bowie’s Blackstar, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, and Drake’s Views, as well as giving an insight into the band’s musical personalities with artists ranging from Young Marco to Arethra Franklin. Played by Jamie xx sees contributions from Lone, Peverelist, and Djrum that all excite, and the prospect of the band taking inspiration from all of these artists as they craft I See You is an encouraging one.
It would be a gross disservice to The xx’s short but prolific catalogue to suggest that they are entering a ‘defining’ or ‘career-shaping’ phase as we await the reception of their third LP. xx saw the band carve out their own space in the crowded melee of popular music as small, tight, and impenetrable as the bathroom-sized studio in which the album was conceived, and whatever I See You brings, they will continue to exist in that deserved space owing to past triumphs. Their genre-defying sound saw fans of electronic, shoe-gazing, dream-pop, indie, and many more all scramble to claim them as their own without joy, and it is this fluidity which affords them their bespoke creative plinth. The realisation that The xx could choose to participate in a number of genres, likely with equal success, is frightening – their 2012 collaboration with Alex Baranowski and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra was mesmeric, a cocktail that shouldn’t have worked, but did. But with Jamie xx’s In Colour coming in between their second and third albums, they now have the opportunity to direct further creative current. “Sunset”, “Chained”, and “Basic Space” all showcase their existing talent, but if they choose to, they have the ability to project and exercise their power over yet another branch of 21st century music. Little soul-searching is needed, rather a full embrace of the electronic masterpiece that is In Colour could see them not only maintain their ability to rouse in so many a tantalising but treasured melancholy, but also invite us to hit replay on I See You long into the New Year.
I See You is released 13th January 2017.