The xx — I See You

Young Turks |
Bone and sinew; little more
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In order to draw attention in an ever more crowded space, much music presents itself with glitz and glamour. Some is artfully sculpted into Babelic peaks (see the dazzlingly florid discography of The Flaming Lips) and some groans under the weight of excess clutter (see Birds of Tokyo's inelegant Brace). A band so dedicated to streamlining inevitably and ironically stands out.

With the harsh chiaroscuro of their first two albums, The xx embodied the most ascetic aesthetic to ever win the Mercury Prize. One or two unison disaffected voices, a bassline, a drum machine and almost nothing else. The occasional quavering synth line or surprisingly tasteful steel drum would be deployed if, and only if, it would improve what already existed.

Of course, sometimes a song can and must benefit from augmentation in one dimension or another. Despite the powerhouse vocals and deceptively simple songwriting that catapulted Adele to superstardom, her anthems tend to gape and her ballads tend to meander. A firmer hand could close the gaps with the 'Skyfall'-style orchestrations a voice like hers so deeply deserves. And a defter touch could prune those repetitive piano figures into smaller and more delicate ornaments.

Minimalism is borne not of necessity, but choice. A single-take garage demo recorded on a phone is not the same thing as a well-established group actively paring back to the barest essentials.

I See You does not mark the fleshing out of bleached-white bones, but rather a delicate stringing of sinew. It all hangs together quite nicely. Here the reverb dial is nudged a little further clockwise, there a second drum machine provides a mellow counterpoint, and everywhere a smooth salve of ambience draws all these disparate elements together.

This is an album best experienced through good headphones in a dark room. Having slightly loosened their attachment to brutal minimalism, The xx have hit upon newfound depth and richness.