Monday, January 16, 2017

The xx - I See You Review

There's a fine line between beauty and boredom. Believe it or not, pieces of art can be both. Take the waiting room of any medical facility for example. If the walls aren't barren, they're filled with generic, expressionless, and utterly passé artwork that finds the artist replicating a scenic landscape, unfettered by humanities touch. The property value of that aforementioned wall rises slightly, but the painting, when inspected, tells me nothing, offers me nothing, and leaves me unmoved when I glance away. The same sentiments can be applied to I See You, The xx's third album, and first in five years. From the onset, the group's highly-stylized sound tip-toed that line, remaining tantalizing with their debut album, disappointing many with tedium on their second. Coexist wasn't so much a setback, as it was a revealing of inherent flaws. One strong debut can only show you so much, as The xx were just as good at sweeping their problems under the rug as they were at the music itself. A long vacation from the spotlight should've resulted in a rejuvenated spirit. Instead, I See You is their most regressive work yet, failing to expand upon any facet their 2009 debut showcased, a troubling sentiment given the almost decade-long progression we've seen in the genre. 

Despite ushering in a new era of Indie music for the UK scene, thanks in large part to Jamie xx's production which sauntered delicately beneath lead vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, The xx's future was uncertain as ever following 2012's Coexist. A trail of new inventors, like James Blake, Chvrches, and FKA Twigs went on to take their Ambient Pop foundation in different, more exciting directions. However, something interesting happened in 2015. Jamie xx released his debut solo album, a lush, vibrant example of UK Bass that received widespread acclaim from nearly everyone. The title, In Colour, and the cover, featuring an organized rainbow wheel, seemed to heavily be a knock and a nod to The xx's hushed monochrome, both artistically and musically. For him, it was true evolution, expanding out from barriers many assumed he'd never break. It also caused never-ending questions about The xx's future to bubble continuously until today. Right as they were about to fade, a rush of saturation would've been the key to reaching the next level. Disappointingly so, I See You does the opposite. Mostly drab production, drowsy vocals, and lousy lyrics prevent the group from journeying upwards, stagnating them on a plateau they've been stuck on for half a decade.

Where does I See You go wrong? Well, it's not so much a lack of ambition. The intent is there. The problem arises in the fact of execution. For much of I See You, it really seems as if Croft and Sim want to bore us to death, as if they're acting out some aesthetic where dull is a primary component. Even tracks which take an emotional plunge, like 'Performance' or 'A Violent Noise,' feel whimpering and supremely anti-climatic. In a twisted light, maybe that's their intent, to torture us like their lyrics seem to imply they have. But no matter the backdrop, whether downtrodden or excitable, Croft and Sim forever exude the same monotone expression. Take 'Dangerous' and 'On Hold,' two of the best tracks here. You feel as if the vibe is supposed to be striking and responsive, given Jamie xx's engaging production, and yet, at a moment's notice, Croft and Sim could swap their performances for one of the more despondent tracks and no discernible shift would be noted.  Long story short, their limited range, both vocally and lyrically, cause I See You's brightest spots to simmer.

As has been evident all along, Jamie xx is the most talented musician here. That doesn't change, but his lack of explosiveness, especially after the monumental In Colour, is disappointing. There's pieces of promise, like the lead single 'On Hold,' where his wonderfully executed sample stutter single-handedly makes the track, or 'Test Me,' where Croft and Sim step aside, allowing Jamie, for the first time on the album, to truly experiment. This leads to an audacious close, that's both captivating and ironic. Why? Because just like a handful of tracks here, I See You cuts off right as things are about to get good. Few songs feel complete because Jamie feels restrained, as if Croft and Sim have him tied up, limiting his potential, forcing him to simmer but never erupt. In The xx's world, we play by their rules. Problem is, the leaders just don't have a knack for greatness, stumbling, in 2009, on a sound barely discovered, failing to revolutionize it in any tactile way since. Here, 'Lips' and 'Replica' are the only two songs where their standard works, feeling apt to add to The xx canon.

The latter in particular, 'Replica,' teases just the right amount of congeniality, mixing with it a fresh new scent. An archetypal xx track, 'Replica' shows what happens when Croft, Sim, and Jamie are swaying in unison, the latter sporting a hushed tropic sound, integrating a wide, well-mastered use of space that the singers fit snugly in. That's not to say an album's worth of material like that would succeed, variation is the key to success after all, but 'Replica' feels unusually stalwart whilst surrounded by subpar tracks reaching for the same heights. Alongside that praise, Croft and Sim both excel lyrically here, finding a balance between intrigue and proclamation, two things nonexistent on the gushy melodramas of 'Say Something Loving' and 'A Violent Noise' for example. The point still remains, I See You, by and large, is painfully uneventful. Ironic considering a handful of songs feature aggressive tones in the titles ('Test Me,' 'I Dare You,' 'Dangerous') and, occasionally, like the opener, lyrics that appear to show some untested rebellion ("cause I couldn't care less, if they call us reckless"). I await a day The xx's are truly unruly, as that'll make for music worth hearing. For now, nothing new is presented, nothing we haven't heard before. Stale and outdated, made even more so by the success of its producer two years back.

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