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Luke Turner On The xx's I See You
Luke Turner , 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

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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.

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Jan 12, 2017 10:46am

Excellent and fair review, daring to go where the other bovine music press either don't have the imagination for or aren't allowed.

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ad hominem
Jan 12, 2017 11:23am

great review (especially the bits about steel) although i do think On Hold is a right grower - i hated it at first but realise it's really well crafted after a few (admittedly radio) listens. maybe not debut album good, but different.

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Jan 12, 2017 12:47pm

jamie four eggs lays another one………you couldn't make it up!

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Jan 12, 2017 4:41pm

hearing rumours the journalist has a girlfriend

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Johnny Nothing
Jan 12, 2017 8:30pm

What went wrong? The second album. I don't recall you mentioning it. But I do find myself having to read your sentences several times to untangle the meaning so maybe I dropped off for a moment back there. Anyway. The second album sounded to me like the record company not taking any chances and forcing songwriting and vocal coaches on the band. Your review suggests they never recovered.

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Jan 12, 2017 10:56pm

For me, the minimalism of their first offerings was as contrived as their attempts to broaden their appeal now.

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Jan 13, 2017 12:21am

oooooo... when is Tattoo Fixers on Holiday out?

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Jan 13, 2017 12:59pm

You lost me at the senselessly cruel "they might have looked outside of the intricacies of their own asexual threeway bubble for inspiration" - what a stunningly bitter review. The Quietus have started to sound like the worst of their stereotypes.

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Nico Rjinders
Jan 13, 2017 1:43pm

"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."

Are you reviewing the record or asserting your cultural superiority to the fanbase?

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Lucien Prost
Jan 13, 2017 2:16pm

"Look mom, i'm dissing this album soo hard". Grow up, like the xx do on this third album.

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Jan 13, 2017 4:51pm

I must say that your opinion on the album couldn't be more wrong and that is apart from the fact that you sound like a pretentious elite asshole. "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", I can't even comment on the this type of trash writing. The album is creative and unique and vastly more expressive then the previous album, it is a sign of maturity as an artist to expand your sound and yet, still carry the sound that sets you apart from other artists, this is no easy feat. I commend their work as artists. You are projecting your disillusioned opinion about society in this critique, it's sad because artists deserve more then that.

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Jan 13, 2017 5:05pm

In reply to Joseph :

Nah. It's well shit.

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Jan 13, 2017 8:27pm

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.” -Brendan Behan

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Jan 13, 2017 8:51pm

Reviewer is talking bollocks

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Jan 13, 2017 10:19pm

I appreciate your honest review very much and i Couldn't agree more. Ive been looking for a review that actually reviewed the music and didn't tell me about all the PR subterfuge associated with this release. And what a staggeringly disappointing album. Compared to the first two this is just bewildering. I am a huge fan and the first two albums , their focus, their minimal darkness, their restraint, were brilliant. Then came "In Color" and the rise of jamie as some sort of cultural force and everything seems to have been washed away in his sudden rise. His hand is so heavy on this record you have to wonder if the other two had any say in it at all. Where's the restraint? The focus? The room they used to leave for single sounds to fill up the void is gone now, filled up with cheesy samples or forced vocal riffs. You're dead on about the opener "Dangerous" (that horn sample..ugh) and about the singing styles changing as well.Next Romy will be doing a duet with Ed Sheeran or something. Its just all terribly disappointing. Im now not so excited to see them at coachella anymore. Especially if they do those akward dances and wear those awful cowboy shirts. Tell you one thing, Oliver didn't land a Dior Homme campaign for making stuff like this.

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Jan 14, 2017 12:18am

In reply to :

Piercing as ever Mr Turner, don't ever stop....

I feel so sorry for poor ickle Joseph, waaaaaaaaahh waaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh

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Tony Perkins
Jan 14, 2017 9:23am

Great review. This album is whack attack

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Jan 14, 2017 9:51am

The essentially sound criticism of this album, post Jamie XX's success and a broadening of their appeal, was totally ruined by the unnecessary invective. There's a little too much delight taken in the act of iconoclasm – no matter how much the author protests. What relevance, really, do Holocaust Memorial Tinder profile pictures, Croatian summer festivals, and Coldplay fans have to this review? IS this meant to be intelligent cultural analysis? Because it's not.

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Jan 14, 2017 10:58am

Most accurate review of any album I've read in a long, LONG time

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Jan 15, 2017 10:59am

such an over-hyped band.

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Jan 15, 2017 8:38pm

Hmmmm...Probing criticism but Mr. Turner is perhaps trying a little too hard to be clever, and there's more than just a hint of bitterness here too. And no matter how bad this album is, surely it can't be as acutely nauseating as group of London millennials sitting around playing a game like 'Tinder Bingo'.

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Jan 16, 2017 9:55am

What a horrible, bitter review.

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Jan 16, 2017 6:46pm

Dare for you is written for her father who passed away a few years back. She's now an orphan at 27. It has nothing to do with her just doing a job. You are so ignorant.

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Jan 16, 2017 7:29pm

The sort of contrarian-for-the-sake-of-it review that's putting me off The Quietus. Spends the bulk of the article venting anger that, in reality, probably has precious little do with the xx, then admits to liking three of the album's tracks, in other words a third of the entire record. I really don't get it.

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Jan 16, 2017 9:04pm

chill out, guys. i didn't read this as excessively bitter. i thought it was funny, and honest. ok maybe a little bit bitter. but i agree, the xx lost their appeal and identity after their initial album, when baria quereshi left. the bass lines really carried that album for me. 'i see you' would have been a better jamie xx album, sans the vocals.

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Jan 17, 2017 1:22pm

In reply to Theekranz:

orphan at 27... fucking LOL... nice one. i guess 27 year olds are fuckin children these days.

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Nico Rjinders
Jan 17, 2017 2:43pm

In reply to j:

yeah, bloody snowflakes getting upset when their parents die, ffs

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Chris Martin
Jan 18, 2017 8:41pm

I'm a little shocked it isn't obvious to all that The xx is/was a one album band. The first album is the only one you'll ever need. Luke Turner hoping that their second disappointing album in a row represents a transition is either misguided fandom talking or simple kindness.

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teitoku kinoko
Jan 19, 2017 1:06pm

In reply to shauna:

Totally agree with this. The debut's bassline is so sexy, one thing I didn't notice in Coexist.

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