A funny thing happens on The xx’s new album: there is a song entitled “A Violet Noise.”
For anyone even passingly familiar with The xx, this almost registers as a joke, a very rare thing in indie-dom. This band has made a name for itself over the last 8 years by specializing in hushed, minimalist indie pop that plays with negative space and lush beats; to describe the texture of any given xx song is to see how many synonyms you can find for “delicate.” “A Violent Noise” is very much an xx song in this regard, with its clean, reverberating guitars and soft synths. Its namedrop comes in Oliver Sim’s muted lament that “But every beat is a violent noise,” so it fits the song, but taken against the band’s work as a whole, it’s akin to naming a line of feather pillows “Brick.”
I See You is The xx’s third album, and the first to roll back the luxe cover their insular sound, albeit only slightly and likely by necessity. Their 2009 debut was a sleeper hit that eventually became an influencer, but recent years have also made it a victim of other people’s success, as the band’s signature moves–sparse instrumentation + electronic atmospherics + romantic complication + introversion–have gone mainstream while they as a unit have not. On one hand, this gives them cachet (in fact, band producer Jamie xx coproduced the title track of Drake’s close-enough-to-landmark Take Care, indirectly putting him near the epicenter of his band’s sound going mainstream) but at the same time, their once cutting edge work seems somewhat outmodded by artists who have pushed it in different directions since their debut and 2012’s Coexist. Jamie xx himself experimented with their template on his breezy, more overtly electronic 2015 solo album In Colour, which itself colors I See You.
As indicated on lead single “On Hold” and album opener “Dangerous,” I See You‘s new trick is swapping out a significant part of the band’s introversion for something dance-friendly. “Dangerous” announces a newer, looser xx with blasts of processed horns, a syncopated head-nod friendly beat, and house bass for a track that’s more outgoing than most of what the band’s done before, but whose excitement wouldn’t overpower you at the clearance rack of Express (and I swear that’s meant as a compliment). “On Hold” owes its expanse, meanwhile, to the festival-friendly build up to a cozy drop with a Hall and Oates sample, as addition to a solid instrumental overall that compliments Sims and Romy Croft’s vocals. Elsewhere on “Replica,” a violin loop is incorporated into the band’s blend of indie rock with dreamy synths, and Croft’s backing vocals are a highlight for a song that quietly reveals when it could just be a puff of smoke.
At the same time, though, there are a few things holding I See You back. Like any act who succeeds at doing one thing really well, every xx album sounds redundant at some point: here, Romy excels on “Brave For You” which handily beats her other glacial, pained confessional “Performance,” and there’s little making “Lips” or “I Dare You” required listening. And sometimes, Jamie’s DJ retool robs the outfit of their best weapons. They could be vocally/sonically be cold and aloof, sure, but they also wrote tightly wound songs that played to those strengths. The band loses a lot of that insulation by going slightly more vibrant, but everyone involved isn’t quite dynamic enough to make the change stick, and so you’re left with songs like “Say Something Loving” and “A Violent Noise” that don’t sound lighter as much as they do flimsier. That’s arguably, if not likely, by design: The xx are a shy group. At their most outgoing, they’re not going to overcome like, Purity Ring. No matter how well-made the dance-heavy or poppier material is, The xx are only going to be able to do it so well.
Whenever my mind wandered while listening to I See You, it came back to how fastidious this album is when it comes to taste, and how that affects the music itself. At times, it feels like the album’s more concerned with showing its impeccable credentials, and making correct song choices than creating arresting music. And I think upper-tier indie has been like this for a while. For my part, it really kicked in with Currents, which, at release, I said “might be the year ’s least adventurous, and most curated album.” “Least adventurous” is unfair in hindsight, but I’d still say that the curating of indie is an ongoing problem. The xx fell victim to it, as have acts like late day Dirty Projectors, Future Islands, Vampire Weekend, and occasionally Bon Iver. I like music done by those groups, but too often they come off as using disparate or passe influences/samples for sake of proving you can without actually making something interesting; it’s the musical equivalent of crashing a conversation with “Well, I think that Bread’s work has gone under appreciated as a whole.” I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with focusing on taste or using obscure influences–Grimes does both, and I still love Art Angels to death–but there has to be a point to it, and it has to work for your audience. Otherwise, you’re playing Coachella today, but who will see you tomorrow?