Luke Turner On The xx's I See You
, January 12th, 2017 08:40
In The xx's third full-length effort, Luke Turner finds an album seemingly more geared toward the televisions syncs that catapulted their once affecting minimalism to ubiquity – a record more about treading old ground with heavy boots than the light touch their debut promised
When I was younger, single and fancy-free I invented a game called Tinder Bingo. To play this pub sport for the hyper-connected age, merely assemble your smartphone-enabled friends and provide them with a list of the visual clichés frequently seen in the photos of lovelorn hopefuls on the popular dating app: mid-jump on a beach with feet tucked up behind the buttocks; covered in paint at Secret Garden Party; fire poi; cradling a sedated animal; a yoga pose; holding up a cake; posing at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin; "gin". Hey presto! Everyone swipes away until full house is called.
The xx’s I See You, then, is a bit like Tinder Bingo. Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie 'xx' Smith's third album is an attempt to get out of what (as they admitted in this recent Pitchfork interview) is a very limited comfort zone. Instead, an attempt to make as broad an appeal as possible has resulted in a dreary album of jarring signifiers and clumsy hooks – a bizarre hybrid of sensible AOR and sun-kissed gap year pop. There are so many #feelings that a sense of forced desperation largely obliterates the charm that gave them their initial appeal.
This is obviously a crying shame. When The xx first emerged, three young people with a nice line in black attire and unforced understatement, they were a thrilling proposition. In an early interview for the dear-departed Stool Pigeon newspaper, the quiet and self-effacing quartet (as they were then) seemed genuinely surprised that someone outside their immediate family and friends was into what they were doing. There was an ambiguity to their lyrical interplay: two openly queer vocalists singing words that might equally apply to friends or lovers felt refreshing in an alt-pop culture still trying to get over the awful New Rock Revolution and Landfill Indie. Their music might have been sparse as the typography on their debut album, but their set at the Matt Groening-curated ATP in 2009 was a festival highlight, all deep bass detonations and a lurking sensual menace. Something similar had happened the year before at Latitude, where on a tiny stage these awkward-looking goths spirited a sunbaked audience away from a live recording of The Now Show, or some other horror.
With all that in mind, it’s unfortunate that I now find myself asking, “What went wrong?”
TV trailer ubiquity can't have helped, The xx suffering from ident saturation more than most. In his vastly overrated solo and collaborative productions, too, Smith has been scattering enough steel drums to have kept the steam hammers of Sheffield in business long after the collapse of the cutlery trade. It's a weight that has perhaps had too much of an impact on the day job. Most significantly, various personal travails, discussed in that same Pitchfork interview, seem to have pulled a little at those childhood-tied knots that once made their quiet intimacy feel so real.
But first, the good news: I See You is a lot better than the two utter clunker tracks that have preceded it might suggest. The first, 'On Hold', is two out-of-the-box generic The xx songs and a charmlessly abused sample of Hall & Oates' 'I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)' crudely hammered together, ruining what might have been a pretty chorus with a terrible Summer Bangerz Vol 24 synth rush. It suggested we might be getting an album as soundtrack to a regrettable visit to the STI clinic after an overly-carefree and much-Instragrammed trip to a Croatian beach festival. The second was only marginally better, and when my girlfriend heard 'Say Something Loving' her reaction was to send a link to the classic (yet undoubtedly naff) flying carpet anthem 'A Whole New World' from Disney's 1992 version of Aladdin, asking "can't you just run this as your review?".
Opener 'Dangerous' might see the album jump out of the traps with plenty of energy but it's a horribly grating listen. The Caribbean horns and skittering garage rhythm sit awkwardly with a lumpen bassline, like a Bedales prefect dutty wining at Carnival. 'A Violent Noise' is all clipperty-clop and a synth crescendo that's presumably supposed to illustrate the Dark Nocturnal Chaos that the lyrics of Oliver's thirsty compulsions and Romy's admonishments summarise. As the treble screeches around the line "I go out / but every beat is a violent noise,” it feels so honkingly obvious in comparison to what they were previously capable of.
Music and lyrics alike are the problem: 'Brave For You' deals in the sort of platitudes many fans of The xx would no doubt sneer at if they came from the mouth of Coldplay's Chris Martin - "When I am scared / I imagine you there / telling me to be brave / so I will be brave for you" over drearily plodding synth pulses. The same mediocrity is present in the thin desperation of sentiment in 'Say Something Loving’. For three albums in they've not really added anything new to a lyrical palette that consists solely of the eddies found in relationships. It's an endless cycle of doubt, angst, reassurance, redemption, catharsis and a little cry. There is absolutely no fire. Rather than remaining locked in this rather insipid mode they might have at least tried new ways to explore the great gamut of human emotion, even looked outside of the intricacies of their own asexual threeway bubble for inspiration. Romy herself outlines the paucity of ideas in 'I Dare You', singing "I've been a romantic for so long / all I ever hear are love songs". Quite.
The only other grist to the soft-toothed lyrical mill appears to be the always-weary trope of a fairly successful mainstream indie band complaining about their lot. On 'Performance', Oliver questions his hedonistic side in "called to an aftershow / do I chase the night or does the night chase me?" On 'Brave For You' Romy says she'll be "brave for you / stand on a stage for you"... which is, well, her job.
Where once The xx’s quiet melodies would carry fractured moments from their lyricism into my deepest doubts and offer solace, they now leave me cold. Minimalism is one thing, but over-simplification is quite something else and unfortunately, all-too-often, I See You strays into the mawkish and sentimental. This isn't helped by the vocal stylings, the fragility of their debut and of Coexist now over-emoted and given a queasy velveteen gloss. If you were so desperate to get on the X-Factor that you paid for singing classes you might end up being taught to sing like this - it's perhaps evidence of how much of an influence The xx have had on everything from blubstep to modern pop, even including labelmate Adele, that this faux-emoting is now an industry standard. They have, unfortunately, started to sound like the worst of their own copyists.
I See You works best when it does actually feel as if the band taken the best of their original minimalism and given it a bit of a fresh and carefree twist. 'Lips' is great; light and twiggy percussion and a creeping funk, about the xxx-iest the xx have ever been. 'Replica' is similarly good, the guitars joined by echoing piano as Romy muses, while on 'Test Me' – the album’s final track – a slow horn sounds, echoing pops and vocalisations as if in a dank cave provide a terrific atmosphere before a final, eloquent flourish of rhythm.
These bright moments are frustrating because they hint at an album that could have been were The xx not making such a garishly obviously play for new admirers. Still, no doubt the bizarre alchemical kudos of XL will ensure that this sells by the bucketload, while there'll no doubt be decent sync royalties via trailers for Tattoo Fixers On Holiday. Surprised to be so utterly disappointed, I hope I See You might be a deeply flawed transitional record that leads to somewhere better. For now, this band who built a reputation on an uncanny ability to put to song the most intimate of moments seem to have lost their grip on modern love.