Review: The xx—A masterstroke of production

Dom Saad pulls apart the intricacies of The xx’s third album, I See You

Source: Jamie Leto

The dislocated voices of the Alessi Brothers croon “before it slips away…” in a sample plucked from their 1976 song ‘Do You Feel It?’. Pitched-up amidst a pattering of crystalline piano, this opens ‘Say Something Loving’, the second single from the xx’s third album, I See You.

Within seconds, the sample trips over itself. Suddenly, a tape is caught up in a diegetic loop, and we’re plunged into a crisp wash of endlessly delayed guitars slick with reverb.

When Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft’s vocals emerge, it’s into a space now full with sound, and the song’s steadily-expanding sphere of noise—from the tinny opening sample to the carefully arranged beats and instrumentation— is a masterstroke from producers Jamie xx and Rodaidh McDonald.

I See You is littered with such reminders that this is an xx post In Colour, Jamie xx’s 2015 solo debut. Opener ‘Dangerous’ cuts in with a fanfare, which feels out of place—that is, until it’s brilliantly woven into the warmth of the punchy drums and moody bassline. In lead single ‘On Hold’, meanwhile, the elastic squash-ball beat underpins a chopped vocal sample that loops over a bold stretch of the track.

I See You consistently sparkles with McDonald and Jamie xx’s subtle prowess. Occasionally it startles with daring ingenuity, benefitting from its producers’ ears for sampling and enabling the same sonic highs that shone through on In Colour. Madley-Croft and Sim’s lyrics tell stories of loss, love, and cloaking it all under their skin. In ‘Replica’, Sim can justify another’s decisions but not his own, and feels doomed never to learn: “As if I tried to, I turned out just like you… Your mistakes were only chemical.” The more down-tempo ‘Performance’ is devastating and spiked with trembling strings. Whether Madley-Croft’s line “the show is wasted on you, so I perform for me” comes from defiant reclamation or utter resignation is difficult to decode.

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Things are more upbeat in ‘I Dare You’, as Sim and Madley-Croft embrace complete infatuation. “I can hear it now like I heard it then,” they sing over a thumping groove. Their voices sound confident and polished, and the lyrical delivery adds a potency that emboldens each word.

Always, Jamie xx’s production is there to craft the scene. “Ooh, I don’t wanna know the way down”, Madley-Croft murmurs in ‘Lips’, accompanied note-for-note by a guitar engulfed in reverb.

More than ever before for the band, Jamie xx’s production moulds each track into a snug fit for Sim and Madley-Croft’s lyrics: his understanding of the emotive potential of production adds limitless power to the album.

It is a fresh sound for the band. The sparing utilisation of samples represents an evolution from 2012’s Coexist, without simply rehashing In Colour. I See You demonstrates a familiarity between the trio, nurtured over the course of three albums, that manifests with their playing off one another’s strengths and entangling together production, composition and lyricism. “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat?” Sim asks in ‘Replica’. As Oliver Sim, perhaps not. As The xx, it might seem so.