Review: Jamie xx Is Singular and Sublime on Debut Solo LP, ‘In Colour’
Release Date: June 1, 2015
Label: Young Turks
Jamie xx has made no secret of his influences. First there was the xx beatmaker’s solo introduction to the world as Gil Scott-Heron’s chosen remixer on 2011’s We’re New Here; then, last year, the producer born Jamie Smith unleashed “All Under One Roof Raving,” his tribute to trance (and rave, grime, U.K. funky, dubstep, breakbeat, reggae, and every other vinyl from a dance subgenre that the respectful sampler could get his hands on). And on the eve of his solo debut, In Colour, his label Young Turks shared with the world a Spotify playlist, “Played by Jamie xx,” consisting of 49 songs from ‘80s New York post-punks Liquid Liquid, ambient dark-stepper Clark, and like-minded, knob-twiddling polymath James Blake.
The whole of In Colour pays homage to his colossal record collection and countless DJ sets, but especially “The Rest Is Noise,” which also reads like a very slight subtweet to Jamie xx’s behind-the-boards competitors (not that he even needs to rub it in, considering he’s nabbed a Drake endorsement, platinum album sales, and even before those, a transcript from a school whose graduates include giants like Four Tet and Hot Chip). It’s by no means the album’s most memorable effort — especially following Persuasions-sampling party-starter “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” — but like the notoriously shy 26-year-old himself, its value is in the understatement. Easing in with twinkly little piano arpeggios and a wicka-wicka-wicka through line, halfway in the track drops through the basement floor with bass that could blow out a headphone’s low end at the proper volume. Even the filler on the album is a floor-filler, and that’s how he intended it.
“With In Colour, I’m not trying to ride a wave,” Jamie xx told Fader recently. “I try and stay away from any cycles or anything that’s going on at the moment or anything that I feel like might be happening soon.” He even steps away from his own brand associations, for the better; the steel drums that characterized earlier releases like 2011’s Far Nearer/Beat For EP don’t provide a constant backing ting ting ting this time around — just a cameo appearance on “Obvs,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to those familiar with his back catalog that also shows he’s got a sense of humor. Though he’s nowhere near dealing with the same critical and commercial deficit as Moby when the electronic pioneer released his game-changing crossover record, Play, in 1999, the impact is likely to be similar: An auteur synthesizing dusty back-of-the-bin soul into something literally transcendent, riddled with timestamps from all eras, that comes from everywhere and nowhere.
That’s because, in addition to the several-year preparation for the release of his first proper album, Jamie xx has spent nearly two decades assembling and curating. Starting with seeing his uncle DJ at a bar in New York City at age 10, he wanted to spin, even if he didn’t know it yet (“I didn’t even know what DJ’ing was,” he admitted to Pitchfork, “I just wanted [turntables] because it seemed satisfying”). Indeed, In Colour unfolds from the point of view of someone who’s not only had veritable eons — at least in an industry where artists and their output overturn Hype Machine in the span of a day — to ingest and digest music, but someone for whom fascination with the craft has always been innate.
Take “Good Times,” for example: Jamie xx steeps those signature steel drums in a thundering reggaeton rhythm as the Brooklyn a cappella group’s 1972 chorus buffering Popcaan and Young Thug’s verses about sex, drugs, and the O.G. dubstep. Or the next song, the booming, skittering “Girl,” which samples its “You’re the prettiest girl in Hackney, you know?” line from an episode of the ’80s British program Top Boy. Despite their polar opposite influences, both tracks are aesthetically similar enough to be pegged to Jamie xx; they’re also truly as satisfying for the listener as the artist, with bass so booming it’s like a hand on your back and syncopation so alluring it requires obsessively repetitive listening.
The album’s most poignant moments, however, might be its most personal. Jamie xx has said he finished the album while working on the xx’s upcoming one, and in turn, bandmates Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft helped him out on his own effort. “Loud Places,” the arguable heart of this record, cradles her instantly recognizable husk of a breath of a voice in sturdy bass and come-to-Jesus choral claps. The video, too — a montage of the two skateboarding through London’s back streets and the tube — references the practice that inducted him into music in the first place. “Seesaw,” her other guest appearance, rides more on emotional skeletons of melodies sped-up just past the tempo where it might have been an xx song; whereas “Stranger in a Room” with Oliver Sim may as well have been a Coexist B-side, or a track left on the cutting room floor of the trio’s Marfa sessions.
Despite these obvious nods to his past and present, In Colour dares and succeeds most on tracks like “Hold Tight,” a nod to minimalist dubstep pioneer Burial’s barely-there textures and miniscule sound switch-ups. Jamie shares a less-is-more aesthetic with the enigmatic Untrue producer both as a speaker (he hasn’t even tweeted yet) and music-maker. On pirate-radio paean and album opener “Gosh” — a continual hammer-drop of scraping see-saws and samples from Lyn Collins’ “Think” — you don’t even recognize the other song’s snippet, which speaks to how meticulously Jamie xx has nurtured his predecessors’ place in his craft, while still keeping it resoundingly his own; he’s almost subsumed in the music. It is exceedingly rare to find a producer who does so much, with so little, that he distilled from, again, so much. If drugs are the backbone of beat-based music, as some argue, Jamie xx’s is the purest kind.