Without losing sight of their subdued, awkward charm, The xx have bit-by-bit become one of the biggest bands in the UK - both as a unit and on their own individual terms. Once pinned to the back of a stage, gadget-hugger Jamie has become especially huge, last year’s ‘In Colour’ solo debut putting him on the map for penning crossover, universal electronic music. Third album ‘I See You’ sees the trio taking full advantage of the producer’s big league status, applying his trademark to their traditionally gloomy, loved-up pop. But it’s also a record that sees co-vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim taking on bold new territory.
Previously, Romy was a reluctant star under the spotlight, just like the rest of her bandmates. ‘I See You’ sees her embracing a role at the front. Album highlights even find her referring back to terrifying early days, when these three teenagers were thrust forward as the UK’s next great hope. ‘Brave For You’ sees Romy going it alone, determined to make a loved one proud (“I will be brave for you, stand on a stage for you, do the things that I’m afraid to do”) while ‘Performance’ puts the trio’s shy status under the microscope.
Oli is in similarly fine form, his baritone vocals several steps more confident than those on 2012 LP ‘Coexist’. On the reverb-drenched, gorgeous ‘Say Something Loving’, both members sound like strangers compared to their former selves. Jamie, meanwhile peppers the record with the same swelling instrumentals that defined ‘In Colour’. Party-starting hooks open the record through ‘Dangerous’, and ‘On Hold’’s Hall & Oates sample is a stroke of genius, even if it sounds like the producer’s turned up to a seance with some disco biscuits.
Occasionally, these strides of confidence take on parallel paths. ‘Lips’ has the makings of a classic, only to be tarnished by a limp, twisted chorus that gives too much room to Jamie’s electronics. On ‘I Dare You’, however, a meeting of minds produces fireworks. Simple, to-the-point, with a heart-swelling chorus worthy of the Drive soundtrack, it’s a purified version of the trio’s biggest strengths. All three members are now capable of operating on a different standing, and when ‘I See You’ strikes best, it’s when these level-ups lock limbs.