Review: The xx ‘I See You’ + What To Listen To Instead

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Being a fan is a can be a tough game, often full of inherent anxiety. Some things are safe, of course. You can be a fan of pizza and it’ll be fine. Or Baby Bells. They’re always the same. But if you’re a fan of the work of a particular artist, let’s say, and you hear that that artist is creating something new, somewhere mixed in with the excitement there exists apprehension. Will the work live up to expectation?

This anxiety was commonplace among fans everywhere before the release of I See You, the third studio offering from The xx. It was a pressure the band was all too aware of in the writing process of their sophomore offering Coexist, and which largely resulted in a functional but staid replication of their debut. In trying to recapture the magic, the magic was diluted. It was with a collective sigh of relief then that critics recognised ‘On Hold’, the lead single from the third studio album I See You, as a statement of intent. The familiar aching vulnerability of Madley-Croft and Sim’s voices carried new weight, bolstered by the muscularity of Smith’s production. A marked shift could be heard in their sound. I relaxed and had a Baby Bell.

The first blasts of a literal fanfare on album opener ‘Dangerous’ validate those high hopes, seeming to herald a new era for the band. The decision to abandon the notion that each track had to be 100% playable live that was so strictly adhered to The xx and Coexist is a positive one, allowing Smith the room to use his talent as a selector, so evident in his solo material, to the table. Strong moments on ‘Violent Noise’, ‘Replica’ and ‘Lips’ come via a more confident, confessional attitude to lyricism and some bright moments in Smith’s production.  

However, these are only patches of new ground, and as the record progresses it becomes apparent that the shift doesn’t go far enough, toeing a line between previous The XX fare and Jamie XX, seeming in its worst moments like something left on the cutting room floor during the edit of In Colour. Fans of The xx’s one-note guitar riffs, tender vocals and vulnerable lyricism won’t be disappointed; the problem is just that it gets a little dull. Key themes which might have been intended to bring the work to near concept-album level simply feel repetitious. Sim’s damaging attitude to partying crops up again and again and Madley-Croft’s stage-performance-as-metaphor-for-life, first heard on ‘Performance’, is echoed so strongly in ‘Brave For You’ that I literally checked to make sure I wasn’t listening to the same track. “Feels like this song's already been sung” sings Sim on ‘Replica’. I can’t help but feel that’s true.  

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We think you should listen to these instead:

Brian Eno ‘Reflection’

At 54 minutes, Eno’s most recent release is an invitation into a dream-state. It unfolds layer after layer, slowly, tentatively, so that even the smallest shifts seem seismic. Eno reflects on the album’s form, dispensing with the need for discrete tracks, choosing fluidity and cohesion. We can’t ignore the choice of title, particularly in light of his statements at the beginning of the year: Eno seems to be taking a moment to gather his thoughts on the state of global politics, his own work, life itself? That terrible business with Coldplay aside, Eno’s consistent ability to simultaneously comfort and aggravate, always breaking new ground, is something to behold.  

Wiley ‘Godfather’

Grime has taken huge commercial strides in recent years. Not since Boy In The Corner have so many wanted to be part of Britain’s most exciting musical expose and Skepta’s recent Mercury Prize winning banger of an album cemented the off-kilter underground sound as a force to be reckoned with both here and across the pond. And now, after months of social media teasing, UK grime’s self-professed godfather is back with a ‘final’ album. Godfather is full to the brim of shout-outs to BBK, illustrious, hard-hitting beats and cynical jokes. If this is really is Wiley’s last offering, which I hope it isn’t, he can rest easy.

Bonobo ‘Migration’

Following the success of 2013’s The North Borders, Bonobo demonstrates on Migration that he’s got a lot more to give. His sixth studio album confirms his undeniable ability to combine the eclectic with the melancholy. Not to be construed as a comment on global migration, this is instead an introspective album, more akin to a migration of musical influences. Emotional and brooding, Bonobo embodies a slow-burning delicacy reminiscent of early Four Tet and the neo-classicalists. This is an album to listen to alone in the dark.

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond