A couple years ago Spotify divulged that “Intro” from the xx’s self-titled debut was the song most often found on user playlists whose titles contained the word “sex.” It came as a surprise to no one. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the song undulates like a Spanish Fly trapped in a silken web of unctuous bass and guitar, club beats, and absolutely no words — just a few shared exhales from a man and woman who might have been strangers but certainly don’t sound like it. As band introductions go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one more intimate.
Three albums and eight years in (and still in their 20’s), Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim have become one of indie rock’s most implausible, emotive power couples. Both are gay, yet their songs personify romantic tension between the sexes more lucidly than the best of their straight peers. On I See You, the duo’s coiled, bruised-heart interplay remains less a game of he-said, she-said in relationships, but of the things left unsaid.
It still carries the urgency of a whispered disclosure but feels airier and more shimmering than previous albums, undoubtedly tracing the arc of DJ/producer Jamie “xx” Smith’s vibrant solo debut In Colour from 2015. There’s greater trust and familiarity, and for better or worse, less a sense of intrigue. If xx was the illicit sound of nocturnal couplings, then I See You is those maneuvers with the lights turned on.
Opening track “Dangerous” lands like a warning shot across the bow of the xx’s dirge-ridden 2012 release Coexist, with horns blasting over Smith’s skittering, Burial-like beat. The two singers trade boasts of reckless infatuation in the face of disaster: “No one can take this away/ If it all falls down/ I’ll treasure each day.” Never has Londoner Madley Croft channeled feverish tranquility this adeptly nor sounded more like her vocal ancestor Tracey Thorn; “Dangerous” is her clubland lullaby.
On a “A Violent Noise,” Sim alludes to struggles with alcohol abuse over Smith’s frantic rave sirens: “I go out/ But every beat is a violent noise.” His band mates finally confront him (both on record and in real life) as Madley Croft sings: “You been staying out late/ Trying your best to escape/ I hope you find what you’re looking for…./ I hope you silence the noise.” The sound rises again, almost deafening. Her appeal hits home. Sim hasn’t had a drink in over a year, a sign that I See You is as much group therapy as art.
Madley Croft’s wounded confession “Performance” is as close to a top-40 ballad (albeit, one draped in reverb and dark, funereal trappings) as the xx have ever composed. As a guitarist, she’s wrings more emotion from a single, extended note than her more technically-adept peers accomplish with a hundred (witness her cry and bent guitar peals align in perfect, trembling unison over the seductive sway of Smith’s Caribbean-tinged riddims on “Lips”). The phrase “Say something loving/ I just don’t remember the thrill of affection…/ I need a reminder, the feeling’s escaped me” verges on a platitude, but when uttered over the incandescent, sampled melody of Alessi Brothers “Do You Feel It?”, its plea lifts skyward like a dove released from its rusty cage. The dark, damaged beauty of their songs might forever keep the xx off the Billboard charts, but their innate ability to transform ordinary exchanges into universal epiphanies is the definition of pop craftsmanship.
“Chemistry is rare in a two, three-time affair” claims Sim on “Lips,” but this trio of childhood friends possesses it in spades. As the xx’s sound has matured, so too have their emotional sensibilities. Sim has entered sobriety. Madley Croft is newly engaged to her girlfriend of many years. Relationships deepen. Trust is formed. We find pockets of silence within the noise. Few artists capture the agony and ecstasy of giving your heart to another human as exquisitely as the xx. I See You is many things — emotional exorcism, trust fall, aphrodisiac — but above all, it is that honest, intimate exchange.