In film, prolific directing icon Martin Scorsese is known for silence in movies. By surgically stripping dialogue and sound effects out of scenes, Scorsese is able to focus in on one mood, one emotion.
Scorsese used it to make viewers fear the unpredictable violent nature of Boxer Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” to feel the suspense between cops and criminal in “The Departed” and to feel the spiritual struggles of Portuguese Jesuits in his most recent film appropriately named “Silence.”
In many ways, Scorsese’s approach to cinematic drama parallels that of The xx’s approach to music. The London trio’s pop sound is subtractive rather than additive — the phrase “less is more” is gospel. Their melodies create poignancy through pithiness rather than verbosity, and nowhere in their discography has this worked better than on their most recent project, I See You.
xx albums have always felt intimate, but never have they sounded this vulnerable. Both Romy’s and Oliver’s vocal performances on the album are outstanding. Their words of longing and heartbreak are soft and sparse, but the soundscapes they exist in make the emotions they present swell to immensity.
On the track “On Hold,” Oliver swoons, “And every time I’d let you leave, I always saw you coming back to me / when and where did we go cold, I thought I had you on hold.” His words of longing for love lost present the idea of nostalgia, but the chopped up Hall and Oates sample and dreamlike guitar work that follow are what make you feel nostalgic. Their lyrics tell you where you’re going, and the sounds that follow take you there. It is tricks like this that make the album such an experience.
This is all thanks to the stellar production work from Jamie xx. In 2016, Jamie xx’s critically acclaimed solo project In Colour found Jamie honing and perfecting his sampling skills and skeletal soundscapes. At the same time, this project found Jamie venturing into uncharted waters that the xx proper hadn’t yet explored. On this project, he found ways to express emotions such as longing and loss through melodies that weren’t strictly morose.
Because of this, I See You feels more textured and colored than any previous xx installment. The opening track “Dangerous” kicks off the album with horns blaring with spirited conviction, and “Violent Noise” has Romy’s guitar melodies dancing pirouettes around the rest of the track. The album still retains its core minimalistic style, but never sacrifices soul or energy to do so.
After their sophomore album Coexist, which served largely as a retreading of their debut material, it seemed that The xx may have just caught lightning in a bottle. However, I See You has given life to their sound in a way that feels renewed, yet still true to what made The xx special in the first place.