The xx is one of the U.K.’s premier indie pop bands, and I See You is a perfect example of why.
The album has a distinct, mature sound that’s patient, atmospheric, and cohesive, as opposed to many modern albums that are fragmented hodgepodges of wannabe radio hits. However, while the musical direction deserves to be praised (and is being praised), the group leaves something to be desired in the realm of lyrical and emotional depth.
The xx is not an easy group to describe in terms of genre. They are indie-pop, but that’s a miscellaneous category more than it is a defining genre. Their sound has a tone to it that you would more expect to find in electronica acts, but with traditional instrumentation as well as electronic. This album in particular is slow and thoughtful, as though it were a singer-songwriter album, but uses horns, electronic beats, and deep bass tones. This combined with the balanced teamwork of vocalists Romey Madley Croft and Oliver Sim.
In musical terms, it is both the album’s greatest strength and greatest weakness that it’s very atmospheric. Their music is not structured in a way to make radio hits, but to create one cohesive sound. Because of that, the album is very consistent – there are no obvious filler songs on the record. But it also gives the album at least some perceived lack of strength, because no tracks really stand out. I do really like the opening brass of “Dangerous” and the smooth vocals of “Replica,” but rarely do any of these songs stick with me. I like the album’s style, but it’s not likely to hit a top ten list. That’s okay – not every album has to – but that might impact whether I buy the album or just happen to enjoy it when I come across it on a Spotify playlist.
But as much as I appreciate the group’s distinct sound, and how cohesive and uniform the album is as a whole, their lyrical themes show an unfortunate lack of diversity and creativity. Nearly every song on this album, without exception, is about romantic relationships – and few of these songs approach relationships in a way that is healthy and productive. Take “On Hold,” for example, which says “Where does it stop/Where do you dare me to/You’ve got the body.” The opener “Dangerous” shows some unhealthy approaches to relationships as well, proclaiming “They say you’re dangerous/But I don’t care/Going to pretend that I’m not scared.” Similar sentiments are throughout the album, defining love in very physical or experiential terms, rather than through commitment and sacrifice. Combine this with an implicit deterministic worldview (“Your mistakes were only chemica” in the song “Replica”), and there’s a regrettable lack of depth here, not to mention lack of thematic exploration and exposition.
It’s not as though every single track has this issue, but it is present on more of them than I’d care to see. There are some moving expressions of love that I can endorse without reserve. For instance, there’s an emphasis on encouraging your romantic partner (“And when I’m scared/I imagine you’re there/Telling me to be brave” in “Brave For You”). Once, the idea of commitment is valued, even if it is in a thematically mixed song (“Test me, see if I stay/How could I walk the other way?” in “Test Me”).
As a whole, I can’t deny that The xx has a compelling sound here, and it holds a lot of promise for the future of the British indie pop group. But there’s a disappointing lack of depth here. While the package may be different, what’s inside is still mostly the same, with a shallow, one-track focus to relationships that ends up rather shallow. Certainly there is something to be said of the music here, and there’s nothing wrong with listening to music for the enjoyment of the music itself, but what I notice more than anything here is unfulfilled potential, even if the wrapping is somewhat interesting.