Sound — 6
I have to admit it right out of the gate. I don't really get the "indie pop" thing. To me, those are two opposite ideas that are in sharp contrast with one another: "indie" representing something against the grain of the mainstream, "pop" being the most middle-of-the-road idea possible, designed to appeal to literally the lowest common denominator. But nonetheless, the genre exists and seems to have taken off, with The xx being one of the most prominent bands in the genre at the moment, with their 2009 debut album being a huge critical and commercial success, and their follow-up, "Coexist," proving to be another positively-received album by the press.
This new album, "I See You," is hailed by some as a bit of a change in style, and to an extent, that is true, with samples and electronic beats taking a bit more of a lead role compared to "Coexist," as evidenced in the opening track, "Dangerous." The band also emphasizes the "pop" end of the indie pop aesthetic more on this album than on "Coexist," with some tracks largely doing away with live drums and guitar parts. For the most part, when guitar parts do appear on the album, they're usually very minimal and clean and drenched with a lot of reverb, and those elements of the album are really what continue the band's sound from "Coexist."
That sound, however, is really nothing all that special. A lot of the melodies and glitchy production seem rather "stock" on "Say Something Loving." The band uses a few samples throughout the album, and while they're tastefully done, I honestly can't say they really do anything for me. "Lips," in particular, opens with a sample of early music (basically, medieval vocal music) group Trio Mediæval's "Just (After Song of Songs)," and it just seems a little out of place on the song to me. The bleeping and booping synthesizers in the background just sound cold and lifeless to me, as well. I also find the reverb overdone. Not just on that song, nor the album or band, but in this genre in general. But such is the nature of this style of music nowadays, and it's sure to tear up the charts regardless. And this exemplifies a lot of my issue with these kind of downtempo, understated "indie" records. There's not even a shred of self-indulgence anywhere on this record. Not one moment that makes me stand up and go "holy shit." The music is so introverted and understated that it often seems to me like the musicians are a little sheepish during the writing process, as if to say "no, please, I don't want any of the limelight at all." Of course, I realize this style of music is incredibly popular and there's a reason for it, but if you're looking for any kind of interesting musicianship, this is a genre that's probably best to avoid. The closest thing we get to an "epic riff" is the looping, palm-muted four-note guitar part in "Replica" with a rather understated clean lead played over it.
On the other hand, the songwriting is actually fairly decent, for the fact that at heart, it's a fairly basic pop album. There's not really a lot of energy on the album, but the melodies and chord progressions at play are fairly decent. There aren't any songs on the album that are really "bad" per se, though there are songs that I found better than the others. "Dangerous" is probably the most energetic, danceable tune on the record, and probably the most immediate of the songs, with its cool sort of hip hop-influenced bass/drum part. The aforementioned "Replica" is probably the most "rock" of the songs on the album, with a more prominent guitar part than most of the tracks on the album, and it does have a pretty cool vibe. While "On Hold" gets off to a slow start, it kicks into a more typical dance music rhythm by the first chorus, and it's a pretty decent track.
As mentioned, the crux of the production on this record (handled by the band's programmer/drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jamie "xx" Smith, along with producer Rodaidh McDonald) is a very minimalist sound consisting of mostly simple electronic beats, sparse bass and guitar parts, synth pads, and very clean-sounding vocals by Romy Madley Croft (who also plays guitar for the band) and Oliver Sim (doubling as the band's bassist), all of which is drowned in reverb. It's not a terrible-sounding record, in terms of layering, how it was mastered and leveled, but I found the reverb to be overkill (for comparison's sake, I'm actually a huge Devin Townsend fan, and even his level of reverb use seems rather minimal compared to this at times).
Lyrics — 7
To be honest, these aren't really deep lyrics, either. They're certainly a lot more mature than the typical pop artist's nowadays, though, and of course, generally center around the idea of relationships. There are tracks that aren't, like "Performance" which is about... well... performing, but a lot of the songs are centered around themes of falling in love. Usually, it's something that seems rather casual, like in "Say Something Loving" ("I went looking for it/Could have been anyone's kiss/Throwing my arms at no one/When I gave up, I found love"). "Brave for You" may have been written as a tribute to Romy Madley Croft's deceased parents, but its themes are rather universal and pretty much anyone who's lost someone important in their life should be able to relate to these lyrics: "In all I know/And what I've done/I take you along/Though you're not here/I can feel you there/I take you along/And when I'm scared/I imagine you're there/Telling me to be brave." There's honestly nothing wrong with the lyrics, and sometimes they hit the right nerve. They kind of match the ambient-yet-sultry atmosphere of the music well. But I wouldn't go into this album expecting some kind of deep, lyrical introspection. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are also pretty capable vocalists, and even though there's not a lot of range or emotional variation in their voices, they do a quite effective job of getting the point of their songs across. Both have a very typical kind of vocal style for current pop music styles, and there isn't really anything wrong with that.
Overall Impression — 6
While in general, I'm not really a fan of this type of music, nor do I profess to have a lot of knowledge of the bands that inhabit this part of the music world, this release isn't really all that bad. As much as I may criticize it for the idea that somehow massive amounts of reverb seem to falsely equate to "musical depth," and that a lot of the musicianship is particularly boring, if you're the type that's unimpressed by flashy playing and extroverted, bombastic arrangements, there's nothing particularly jarring on this this record, and it's rather enjoyable as a piece of background music. It's a soft, lulling, and even sometimes lush performance, and for fans of this type of music, this is probably going to be right up your alley. Having heard "Coexist" and bits of their self-titled debut album, I can honestly say I liked "Coexist" more than this record, as it seemed a little more "rock," with a little bit more of a prominent guitar sound and just a tad bit more energy and bombast to it, when really the only time this record feels like it's about to leap out of my speakers is on the first track.
It's not a very energetic record at all, and there's very little variety in the sound or tone on the record, and to me, that's probably its biggest downfall. I feel this record could have used a bit more variety in tempo or timbre to make some of the songs stand out a little more, and to make even more understated moments like the album's closer "Test Me" all the more appreciated. Instead, the album just kind of tends to plod along, and rather than feel warm and cozy, kind of just seems cold and distant. I can't really give this record a strong recommendation, unless you're already a fan of that sort of C86-influenced indie pop style, but I'm certain that this record also has many traits that will make it a hit on the charts, with how safe a lot of the melodies and beats seem, and you may want to really try this record before you come to the same conclusion I have. I feel that this is the kind of record whose reaction is going to vary greatly depending on who the listener is, but I did not feel this was a very strong record for listening to of its own accord.