Published Feb 02, 2017It's hard for any band to follow up a critically acclaimed debut, but few face a bigger task than The xx did after the success of their dark, spacious 2009 masterpiece xx. Critics were effusive in their praise of it; the album's nocturnal sound became quickly influential in electronic music, R&B, pop and hip-hop. When it came time to record 2012's Coexist, what choice did the UK trio have but to walk further down that road?
"Coexist was the first time we made an album knowing we had an audience," explains singer and bassist Oliver Sim. "We had an idea that we made minimalistic music, so we thought, 'Okay, people like that; let's cling onto the fact that we have rules that we only want to record what we could play live.' There were quite a lot of limitations."
For their third album, I See You, the band — Sim, fellow singer and guitarist Romy Madley Croft and percussionist/producer Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx — came in with a new mandate: "We want to make the sounds that we want to hear."
A combination of years of touring, the success of Jamie's solo LP In Colour and pop songwriting courses Romy took in Los Angeles gave the band newfound confidence to experiment, and on I See You, they did: opener "Dangerous" begins with brassy, upbeat horns and a two-step rhythm; "On Hold" turns from ballad to dance track; "Replica" finds Oliver and Romy interacting vocally in new ways, singing different things simultaneously, rather than in unison, until the song's wordless chorus sweeps in.
Most apparent, though, is Jamie's more prominent role. His samples, warm and inviting, open "Say Something Loving" and "Lips," and on first single "On Hold," he "sings the chorus," as Oliver puts it: "He's always had a voice via sampling, but now it's part of the songwriting."
Jamie credits Romy and Oliver's growth as songwriters for I See You's dynamism.
"On Coexist, we were sort of piecing it together; this time, I was free to inject more of my personality into the right parts of the songs, since the songs were already there for me to do that."
As touring approaches, The xx are figuring out how to translate these songs live, but although Jamie says it's "near-impossible," he has no regrets about their liberated approach to I See You.
"In the studio, we were just in the moment, making the best possible music — not thinking about the next step that much."