I See You review by The xx

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  • Released: Jan 13, 2017
  • Sound: 6
  • Lyrics: 7
  • Overall Impression: 6
  • Reviewer's score: 6.3 Neat
  • Users' score: 6.6 (23 votes)
The xx: I See You

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."

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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.

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20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "Users' score: 4" wow, is it really that bad?
    It's not bad if this is specifically the type of sound (slow pop/rock that kind of wants to be ambient, and sounds very, very modern and built for pop/R&B radio) you're looking for. But I can definitely see how the majority of UG's user base is not going to like it.
    I was at a 3 day punk / hardcore / metal festival in Australia 2 weeks ago. Me and a dude I met at the campsite next to ours drank beers at 2am listening to the xx (first album admittedly). I was under the impression most people liked a bit of variety in their music, rather than being confined to the hard rock / metal world.
    In contrast with a lot of the metalheads I know (both in person and on comments boards such as UG's), I've often found the hardcore/punk fanbase to be much more open-minded. Seems they're not as affected by ideas like how many strings the guitars have or how much distortion is being used, just as long as the tunes are good. Personally, I have a niche I'm happy with in regards to my musical taste, but I'm always willing to check out something new and different, and many times, I've had a positive reaction.
    What did you expect this to be, a metal album? If you didn't already like their sound this won't win you over, but it's a quality album in it's own regard
    "If you didn't already like their sound this won't win you over" And that's definitely a point I try to get across in all of my reviews. All of these reviews I write are simply my own honest opinions of the music, but I do try to keep that objective frame of mind that no matter how bad I think an album might be, there's someone out there who likes it enough to keep buying it. In fact, in this particular review, I make it clear that it's my own opinion and that you may want to give it a listen before you draw the same conclusions I did.
    In my mind, a music reviewer is supposed to be someone who is knowledgeable of the genre they are reviewing. If you haven't listened to many bands of the same genre as The xx, how are we supposed to take this review seriously? The entire review, you're basically stating how much you dislike genre characteristics instead of the album itself. "I don't like the new Metallica album. They use way too many palm mutes on the E-string with too much focus on guitar solos and not enough on chord progressions. I don't like how James yells on the album. Can't he just sing cleanly?" "I don't like the new The xx album. They use way too much reverb with too much focus on chord progressions instead of guitar solos. I don't like how Romy sings too passively. Can't he just sing more passionately?" See what I mean?
    Part of it also means keeping an open mind. I've done several reviews of genres I'm not overly familiar with, and a few that I am even open in my dislike of, that have actually turned out to be fairly decent albums (check out my review of the most recent Of Mice & Men album for a good example), just as I've given poor reviews of albums from genres and even particular bands I like (the recent Meshuggah being another). Fact is, while I do get to ask for particular reviews, especially of albums in genres I'm a huge fan of (my recent Pain Of Salvation album being a perfect example), some simply get assigned to me, and I have to do my best to try and be objective about it, but I still have to be honest with how I feel about the album. Besides, part of music reviewing is taking a look at albums from different perspectives as well. I can only imagine that if the album was only reviewed by people that like this particular genre, it'd be a very biased slant towards it. At the very least, with this review, you're getting an honest opinion, not just someone who's already a fan going "this album is perfect". If you'd rather see a review from someone who knows the ins and outs of the genre, feel free to submit your own. I'll even admit, it might turn out better than mine.
    For what it's worth, I did check out their other albums prior to this (as I do with many reviews I'm assigned by bands I'm not that familiar with), and I honestly enjoyed their previous one, "Coexist", more.
    I've been a huge fan since the first album and got to see them at 2010 bonnaroo, with that being said I like this album but I've only listened to it once so far, they have a unique and distinct sound but this album is more dance oriented which i had a feeling was gonna happen after I heard the Jamie xx album but I'm gonna keep an open mind about it and listen to it more....it's too bad people don't give them a chance they're all young and extremely talented
    Yeah first album is great. I've heard a few tunes of this on the radio and its a bit more middle of the road. I think I prefer the slow moody stuff.
    slow/ambient indie pop is perfect for studies. this is gonna be my soundtrack for the studies of today.
    Oh yeah, definitely. Different music for different moods and situations, right? I could easily see myself enjoying an album like this as a backdrop for something like working at my day job. It's not exactly music I would want to listen to for the sake of listening to music as an activity on its own, though.
    I listened the album while working as well, really nice overall. the songs tend to drag a little in the end, but there are some nice tunes there. "Violent Noise" is my favourite.