The xx’s 2009 self-titled debut was a watershed album for indie rock, one that effortlessly fused after-midnight R&B with pop sensibilities. Eight years later, much has changed. World-shifting indie rock records like The xx’s debut now seem few and far between. The band itself has splintered off in different directions; Jamie xx’s emergence as a top-tier solo producer last year has raised the stakes for I See You even more. However, the band largely retreats into familiar territory with this new album. The xx seem too comfortable for their own good here, content to play to their individual strengths as musicians and songwriters.
I See You started off promising. Album opener “Dangerous” begins with a boisterous blare of horns before settling into a menacing groove. It’s the most danceable song they’ve ever written by a mile—a bold new direction for the band. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s central refrain of “you sound dangerous but I don’t care,” rings as true as anything they’ve written before. On previous albums, The xx were buoyed by the delicateness of their arrangements and the emotional power of their songs. “Dangerous” shows glimpses of a band that has sacrificed the former for a new kinetic energy, a shift that makes for thrilling listening.
Their winning streak continues on the next track, “Say Something Loving,” which demonstrates the band’s ability to communicate complex emotions simply and directly, something that has always been their strength. It’s a sparkling, effusive ballad, boasting a quiet confidence that shows that the band has had time to hone their talents. Two songs in, I See You felt like the record listeners wanted from The xx—one that dares to push the envelope without sacrificing the qualities that made the band great in the first place.
If the album’s first act was bold, new, and full of energy, its second feels weighed down, derivative, and at its worst, drab. At times it sounds like The xx by numbers, with the token reverb-soaked guitar on “Performance” and ham-fisted dual vocals on “On Hold” sounding like tossed-off retreads of the band’s previous work. There’s a safety that pervades the back half of this record, a feeling of a creative risk that was contemplated, but not taken.
On Jamie xx’s standout track “Loud Places,” guest singer Croft described going to “loud places to search for someone to be quiet with.” On I See You, The xx are faced with the opposite predicament—trying, for the most part in vain, to express intense emotions in spaces that are altogether too subdued.