It would be momentous enough under any circumstance for The xx to release a new album, but add to it the fact that it’s been five years since their sophomore effort, Coexist, was put out into the world, and well, it just makes I See You particularly hair-bristling. And indeed, it does feel as though The xx sees every corner of you–your psyche and according emotions–harmonizing together as though they’ve been working for decades on how to chill you to the bone with their ability to speak to your life plight.
The trajectory of I See You seems to track the progress, or rather, waning of a relationship. And what better topic for music that will timelessly resonate? Establishing the fear one feels before surrendering to l’amour, Romy Madley Croft essentially shrugs, “Should it all fall down, I’ll treasure each day.” But that’s much too easy to say in the beginning, when your heart hasn’t yet been maimed. The upbeat, brimming with auditory jubilance “Dangerous” opens I See You with just this sort of skittishness paired with an “ah fuck it” attitude, Oliver Sim singing, “They say we’re in danger, but I disagree/…They say you are dangerous, but I don’t care/I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared.”
The second track, “Say Something Loving,” which samples from Alessi’s “Do You Feel It,” marks a sharp dip from the carefreeness of “Dangerous,” with “don’t let it slip away” being the constant anxiety-ridden mantra that pervades the theme of losing love just when you thought you’d secured it. “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection/I need a reminder, the feeling’s escaped me” is a sentiment we feel all too often after the novelty of initial attraction has worn away.
Operatic and dramatic, “Lips,” offers the chant, “Just your shadow, just your voice/just your love, just your shadow” from a particularly quavering and moody Croft, who seems to be beckoning to her object of affection with witchy insistences like, “My name on your lips/My air on your lungs.” And yet, this sort of visceralness can rarely be sustained.
Slowing down the pace from “Lips” is “A Violent Noise,” which permits Sim to take the reins on most of the track. But that doesn’t mean Croft doesn’t intervene with, “You been stayin’ out late/Tryin’ your best to escape/I hope you find what you’re looking for.” A highlight of how one copes with the loss of someone he or she cares for, it often entails self-destructive behavior that can prompt one to wish, “I hope you silence the noise.”
Again Croft-heavy on vocals, “Performance” speaks to that moment in a relationship when you’re trying so desperately to get it back to how it was at the start, when it was all loving looks and pedestals galore. Croft paints the picture of a woman convinced that, “If I put on a disguise, will you think everything’s all right?” But the more we try to mask how we feel to the one we love, the more we tend to resent them. And that’s when we find “the show is wasted on you, so I perform for me.”
With just a tinge of country twang to it (some of the album was recorded in Marfa, after all), “Replica” offers a dual meaning in a certain sense, evoking images of breaking up with someone and then getting back together with them again in the hope that different results will occur as Sim sings, “Second time around, it feels like this song has already been sung.” Then again, it can also refer to the notion of nothing really changing when you enter a different relationship. “Your mistakes were only chemical,” a reaction to the person who drove you insane with their lack of love and will probably continue to do so again and again in every new incarnation of the person who takes form as your lover du jour. Thus, it’s only logical to ask of love: “Is it my nature to be stuck on repeat?”
Giving over control to Croft again, “Brave For You” is the plot point in the end of the relationship where acceptance starts to occur, and one decides to use what they learned from their time with a person to their advantage, applying it to instances of inner struggle. Bewailing, “When I’m scared/I imagine you there,” Croft admits, “when things don’t make sense/I have courage because of you.” And it’s a type of courage that can only come from being burned so many times that allows one to persist in making the next potential mistake.
The first single from the album, “On Hold,” is pinnacle The xx, with strong influences from Jamie xx’s album, In Colour, aurally punctuating it throughout. One of the most bittersweet songs of I See You, “On Hold” examines the idea of a man who thinks he has a woman’s love so strongly in his pocket that he can simply hold on to her until which time he is ready to fully embrace her. But it is not so as Croft laments, “I can’t hold on to an empty space.” Sim returns, “When and where did we go cold/I thought I had you on hold.” But the problem with a man who believes, “I always saw you coming back to me,” is that he never tends to the proverbial garden that is woman.
As the record begins to wind down, the beat does not, with “I Dare You” picking up the pace to lend encouragement to the girl who has been eviscerated by the effects of heartache. Sim goads, “I can feel that you want to wake up high on it/Feeling suspended,” that “it,” of course, being the dopamine of love at the beginning. Croft explains, “I’ve been a romantic for so long/All I’ve ever heard are love songs, saying ‘Oh, go on I dare you’.” But once you reach a certain point, it gets harder to take on the dare of love.
The final song on the non-vinyl box set version (for those with it, however, you’ll also enjoy “Naive,” “Seasons Run” and a demo of “Brave For You”), “Test Me,” is a fitting conclusion to the downward spiral of a relationship. Tying in with the title of the record, Croft bemoans, “Tell me, should I see someone?/Ceiling’s falling down on me/You look but you never see.” And yes, often times, when you’ve been with someone long enough, you decide to say, “Just take it out on me/It’s easier than saying what you mean.” After enough abuse though, most people can’t withstand the emotional cracks spreading to form one cataclysmic break. So when you decide of the person you’re with, “Test me/see if I break,” be prepared to do just that.
On a side note, The xx also recently covered an extremely personalized version of Drake and Rihanna’s “Too Good,” a song that, when interpreted by them, feels like it was tailor-made for the motif of the album, the lyric, “It feels like the only time you see me is when you turn your head to the side and look at me differently,” being all too applicable to the concept of day old bread treatment in a relationship.