I See You, the xx’s first album in a little over four years, does not herald a new direction for a group that stumbled into one of the defining sounds of a generation. Instead, the trio finds a fairly happy medium between the quiet intimacy of their pioneering debut record and whatever else may lie in front of them. This was the riddle that Jamie xx, Oliver Sim, and Romy Madley Croft needed to solve. Their self-titled first record—with its sparse, cold arrangements and lyrics that read like instant messages—was, even by the band’s own admission, an accidental miracle, and thus impossible to replicate.
The album was so singular that its aesthetic trickled up to the very top of American pop. The Drake and Rihanna duet “Take Care,” one of the best songs recorded by either artist, lifted an entire Jamie xx production for its beat, but it was the emotionally vulnerable conversation between the two that felt like a direct reference to the animating thesis of the xx. You can still hear the group in the most contemporary of pop songs: Drake and Rihanna recorded a “Take Care” sequel, “Too Good,” that cemented their place in Drake’s vast universe of influences; Kiiara’s “Gold,” with its clicks and pops floating in empty space, is an exact re-imagination of the group’s first album as radio pop; gnash’s “i hate u, i love u” is another hit that, like The xx’s early songs, feels like a text message exchange between teenagers set to music.
That legacy felt like a burden on Coexist, the xx’s half-step of a second album. The record proved that the magic of their debut couldn’t be repeated, but the band wasn’t able to push through to the next level. There were hints at what would eventually be the basis of Jamie xx’s solo work—techno rhythms, a wisp of tropical synths—but they hewed too closely to the sound of their debut but without the memorable songwriting.
I See You is still distinctly and deeply an xx album, but in the gap between albums the group has found a way to move unmistakably forward while still sounding like themselves. “Say Something Loving,” the second single, is a prime example. Sim and Madley Croft trade sentences over spidery guitar lines, but their singing is clearer and more throaty. Jamie xx contributes drum fills that nod subtly towards EDM, and a fleeting vocal sample—“before it slips away,” lifted from the Alessi Brothers’ 1978 track “Do You Feel It?”—seems intended to haunt the song. Tension is built, but not exactly resolved—much like their first record, but with a different energy. On “A Violent Noise,” Sim and Madley Croft are foregrounded as always, but the track conveys its emotion—“Every beat is a violent noise”—most deeply via Jamie xx’s production, which is at once shuddering and shot through with a bright synth tone that connotes an optimistic strength.
The first sound you hear on the record is an unexpected one from a band that normally communicates in sighs and whispers: a bleating horn loop which gives way to an uptempo bass line that grinds like a piece of heavy machinery. The resulting track, “Dangerous,” is unlike anything that appeared on previous records marked by their intense quiet—it begs to be played loud. Finally, a band that’s been headlining festivals for years made a song meant to be performed at one. The same can be said for lead single “On Hold,” which builds in steady waves from a standard xx song to one that uses a Hall and Oates sample as a telegraphed hands-in-the-air drop.
Most impressive, though is “I Dare You,” which uses their tried-and-true blueprint as a launching point for a sky-scraping wordless hook that’s as close as they’ve ever gotten to the openly anthemic. Here, again, the song’s upward momentum feels not like a betrayal of their core sound, but a natural growth from within it. The infamously insular band finally sounds comfortable in their own skin, and thought it seems unlikely that they’ll ever release a project as purely good as their debut, they’ve now stepped out of its shadow and into the sunlight, eyes up and ahead.