Review: I See You by The xx

I See You by The xx
2017 (Young Turks)

I was watching football with my dad when a promo came on for the episode of SNL with Kristin Wiig as the host and The xx as the musical guest.  My dad has always liked Wiig, so he made a comment about being sure to see that one, and followed with a comment about how half the time he has no idea who the hosts are anymore.

“You probably don’t know who the musical guest is either, but stay awake for this one.  That’s a great band,” I said.

When the show aired six nights later and I watched it alone in my house, I left the TV on mute for everything except the Kristin Wiig sketches and the musical performance, for reasons I don’t want to get into right now.  Honestly, I didn’t want to watch SNL but I was eager for the first new music from The xx in four years.

Midway through the first song, I thought, “My dad’s not going to trust my recommendations anymore.”  It was a fine performance, but who was this band and what were they playing?  This wasn’t The xx I knew, and I didn’t know how to hear it.

But that was two months ago.  The new album, I See You, has been out two weeks, and I’ve given it six spins so far, and it’s as good as the critics say.  Somehow, it’s completely an xx album while being almost completely unlike the band’s first two albums.

“More expansive” and “less insular” were the early pre-release buzzes, and all I could think was, why would I want a less insular xx?  If anything, I want more insular.  Where the first two albums were perfect driving-at-night music for remembering everything you’ve ever regretted and every stupid thing you’ve ever said to the women you’ve loved, this new collection of songs feels more like it’s meant for tearing yourself open and letting everybody take a look at what those stupid things are.

And it feels pretty dang good.  Most of the defining elements of the xx sound are still there: the one-note-at-a-time, droning guitar riffs; the super-clean production; the breathy vocals by Romy Madley Croft that remind you of those Everything but the Girl albums you haven’t listened to in far too long.

The “more expansive” part of the new sound is in some of those wide-open spaces in the band’s composition.  The playing on the first two albums is blessedly sparse, leaving room for memories of long talks over coffee where you wondered how someone so easy to communicate with for so many years could now be a total mystery to you.  It doesn’t leave that kind of time, driving you forward so that while you don’t go quite as deep, you cover a lot more ground.

The vocals are less whispered, less eavesdropped-on, and more insistent.  The drums sound less like the slow-motion ticking of a clock in the other room and more like proper drum-playing on a good dance record.  There are strange sounds (synthesized horns, distorted tin whistles, muted humpback whale shrieks, excited walruses) all over the place, coloring in those spaces that used to make you stare into the void.  The songs are songier, with easily discernable verses and choruses.  The melodies are more varied from one song to the next, as with the almost Japanese-inflected notes in “Tell Me,” and with “A Violent Noise,” which sounds like it could have been an Of Monsters and Men song.

If I See You were the first album by The xx, and if xx and Coexist came out later, I (and you) would probably like this album best, which feels like a weird thing to say.  But it’s not, and they didn’t, and I don’t.  I like it very much.  It just doesn’t take me where I long for an xx album to take me.  8/10


  • Most unlike what you’ve heard from this band: “Dangerous,” the opening track.
  • Most xx-like: “Performance.”
  • Best song: Probably “Replica,” which is one of those you kinda don’t really hear until you hear it, and then it’s all you want to hear.
  • Second-best song: “I Dare You.”
  • Song that reminds you of Tracey Thorn: “Brave for You.”
  • Most unexpected moment: Sampled and looped vocals from Darryl Hall and John Oates’s “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” on “On Hold.”
  • Best lyric (from “On Hold”):
    Now you’ve found a new star to orbit
    It could be love
    I think you’re too soon to call us old
    When and where did we go cold?
    I thought I had you on hold 

    And every time I let you leave
    I always saw you coming back to me
    When and where did we go cold?
    I thought I had you on hold


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