In an interview between Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes and the xx, published a week before the band released its first album in five years, co-lead singer Oliver Sim discussed the struggles he and his bandmates had in creating their second album, “Coexist,” in 2012, with the omnipresent sophomore slump possibility towering over them.
“There was so much pressure from ourselves about: What do people like about us? What makes us sound like us? What do we need to hang onto?” Sim told Snapes. “When we’re thinking like that, at our worst, we can end up sounding a bit like a parody of ourselves.”
“Coexist” was good, not great. It added on to the sound the band had crafted on their eponymous debut in 2009, “xx,” sometimes in a good way and sometimes seemingly for the novelty of switching things up. It was received warmly from the music world, but the future wasn’t as certain as it had been after their first album won the coveted Mercury Prize.
After “Coexist” was released, the band members took some time apart from each other. The most noteworthy marker in that stretch of time came when Jamie Smith, known by his stage name Jamie xx, released a critically-lauded solo album in 2015. Sim and his co-lead singer, Romy Madley-Croft, both made multiple appearances on the album, and for the first time since 2009, it seemed like the three were having fun being themselves.
On “I See You,” the band’s third album released Jan. 13 on Young Turks, the xx doesn’t sound like a band concerned with figuring out who they are. They sound like a band occupied with who they are right now.
By meshing the highlights of Smith’s superb solo record — the danceable grooves, the layered synths — with the sinewy guitars and the irresistible one-two punch of Sim and Madley-Croft’s exchanging lead vocals, they form.
Take the slightly acidic guitar plucks and shuffling snare behind Sim and Madley-Croft’s vocals on the chorus of “A Violent Noise” as an example. Both noises are decidedly Smith’s sounds, hallmarks from his album, the colliding drums copied and pasted from his album’s penultimate track, “The Rest Is Noise,” and the stabbing guitar notes drawn from a number of songs. But it’s decidedly an xx song, as the two share verses and choruses in the forefront rather than the background.
In the first few seconds of “On Hold,” this album’s lead single, Madley-Croft begins singing over an upward-bound synth, cloudy at first before emerging into clarity with a burst of samples, Smith sliding in once again to spruce up the band’s more pop-leaning tendencies. It’s a perfect slice of pop from a band which broke onto the scene wearing nothing but black.
The upbeat tracks are perfect meshes of everything Smith did right on his solo album, and the xx’s debut album from 2009. The verses from “On Hold” ran vaguely emotional lyrics over top of straightforward, galloping bass and guitar lines, just like they did on “Islands” a lifetime ago.
Lyrically, there’s nothing as striking as the verses these two penned on their debut, but the themes the xx is known for still reside here. Forlorn lovers, loners and eyes-wide-open couples have plenty to pick through in Madley-Croft and Sim’s veiled exchanges.
And on album closer “Test Me,” Smith shows he and the band still have plenty of room to grow.
Always a master of using space in his music, this time around he teases out the pauses in the song and coaxes listeners forward with just enough sound to make them want more. He leans heavily on simple piano-based production in the first half of the song, placing Madley-Croft’s vocals in the forefront, before things fade away for the final two minutes and Smith runs rampant. He conjures piercing synths skyward, as he did on the opener of his solo album, “Gosh,” a fittingly majestic conclusion to a true return to form from the xx.