Essential New Music: The xx’s “I See You”

On its second album, 2012’s Coexist, the xx doubled down on the minimalist aesthetic that made its debut an instant classic. Coexist found new ways to work with the spaces between Romy Madley Croft’s clear-toned guitar lines, Oliver Sim’s melodic bass and Jamie Smith’s restrained beats and gauzy keyboards, and new ways to throw Croft and Sim’s introspective vocals into sharp relief.

The danger of minimalism, however, is that it eventually becomes more difficult to create something fresh through subtraction rather than addition. The blare of horns that opens I See You announces a retooled, vibrant xx. I See You startles with its extroverted touches: the forceful vocals on “Say Something Loving,” the R&B hooks to “Lips,” the “I Can’t Go For That” Hall & Oates sample on “Hold On.” While “Performance” might fit on Coexist, almost every other song includes at least one disruptor, even if it’s as subtle as the increased BPM of “I Dare You” or the unison vocals of “Test Me.”

Smith’s 2015 album In Colour (credited to his DJ moniker, Jamie xx) is the obvious template: Both Croft and Sim contributed vocals to their partner’s club-happy debut. But what makes this xx album work so well is that the British trio hasn’t lost sight of what has made them special from their start as teenagers on their 2009 debut: their use of space and silence; the interplay between voices, Croft’s alto often in dialogue with Sim’s baritone; the earnest, self-aware, sometimes self-lacerating lyrics; the sense that this is a young band that grew up on hip hop and U.K. club music but whose DNA includes New Order, Young Marble Giants and the Cure without being self-conscious about any of them. It continues to add up to something special.

—Steve Klinge