The first time I saw the xx, I could barely hear them. Romy's voice was barely above a stage whisper and Oliver Sim refused to bare us with eyes. The band's break-out star, whose beats would late be sampled by Drake and Rihanna and go on to own the festival circuit the summer of 2015, Jamie xx, couldn't be seen behind a thick veneer of bilious smoke. A friend of mind told me that it had been a spiritual experience, the trio preforming behind the large and imposing xs, and they were hardly alone: Matt Groening was so taken with the band's debut that he had them play the ATP fest he curated. He compared their stage presence as akin to "a relationship that's dead but hasn't quite broken up."
The money cut of I See You, the band's third album which comes out tomorrow, is "A Violent Noise," a blistering declaration of purpose that calmly uses the xx's trademark sound like a wrapper the band is excited to throw away. The title, at first, recalls "The Rest Is Noise," a pretty tight slice from Jamie's In Colour that has aged remarkably well. But it rips out its own space in the xx production empire. "A Violent Noise" begins with a loosely tropical chord progression that at one point would have put you in mind of "Islands" or "Night Time" from The xx, but now probably reminds you of the beginnings of a hot beat Skrillex would whip up for Justin Bieber because that's just how powerful of an underground hit machine that album was. But almost as soon as Sims begins singing "With every kiss from a friend, with everything I pretend," like the indie kid waking one day as big as Drake, one of Jamie's brooding and skeletal beats begins taking up space behind him, vacuuming away the acoustic neatness of their old sound. By the time Romy begins singing about further partying and not returning home, we're already in this weirdly familiar territory that we're sure we've never been in before.Last week, Tom Breihan wrote for Stereogum that the moody trio "no longer sound exactly like spartan, gothic weirdos whispering hidden longings to you." Which is a way of saying that the xx's new sound is no longer the cute hushed intimacy of high school makeout sessions, something that you'd hear in a Topshop in between buying skinny jeans. The album's best jam includes hand-claps and Romy belting the chorus "I've been a romantic for so long/All I've ever heard are love songs," and is called "I Dare You," as if challenging their audience's ability to have a good time. The lead single, which came out late last year, is powered entirely by what must have been a very expensive Hall & Oats sample. Both of these are very excellent and foretell an exciting 2017 in pop music. But everything about that old sound remains on I See You, the way no truly great band can shake off the groove that got them there. On the track that follows "A Violent Noise," Romy achieves a kind of profound intimacy, the sort of thing that feels somewhere in between a performance piece at PS1 and a scene from Skins where everyone is crying. There are violins. It is called "Performance."