There’s a case to be made that some music is meant to be accompanied with sativa and some with indica. (Find me someone out there in this beautiful world who reaches for their Hindu Kush when they’re blasting Meshuggah, and I’ll gladly buy them a pre-roll). The London based trio the xx, however, makes songs that subtly shift between taut, cerebral melodies and mellow grooves, and as a result they stand in some middle ground between those two poles of the music + cannabis equation. The group’s third album, I See You, is their most dynamic and varied work yet; it begs for a puff of anything to enhance its climactic clattering and sublime mysteries.
The xx – guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft, bassist Oliver Sim and producer/percussions Jamie Smith — have been collaborating since they were in their teens at the Elliott School in Putney, South London, and perhaps as a result, their self-titled debut, released in 2009, had the makings of a streamlined classic. Full of empty space and monolithic guitar parts, it managed to generate momentum out of nothingness and tension out of even the most frictionless sounds. Tracks like “VCR,” “Islands” and “Basic Space” wormed their way effortlessly into our ears with stadium-ready hooks, yet listener were still hard-pressed to find moments where all three musicians were even playing in unison.
Unlike their debut, I See You does not sound effortless. The album was born out of a period of conflict, as bassist Sim struggled with alcohol abuse. “Never mind that I wasn’t leading a very healthy lifestyle,” he told Pitchfork recently. “The fact that I wasn’t being creative hit harder — and kidding myself that I felt more creative with a drink in me.” As Sim battled his personal demons, the trio battled to remain friends. “It really affected me because I care so much about him and I just want him to be happy,” Croft explains.
I See You succeeds by articulating both that sense of chaos, and the trio’s eventual triumph, through both a newfound exuberance and a refined take on their minimalist approach. Where they once pattered and thudded, drums now thwack and crash; while the band once sounded like they were making music for silent city nights, here they have occasionally let the light in and embraced full-bodied arrangements.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than on opening track “Dangerous,” which begins with a shrill blast of horns and throbbing bass. It’s the closest thing the xx have produced to a house track, and it sets the stage for an album full of surprises and musical thrills. “Say Something Loving” chugs along with a pale piano sample, and “Replica” distills the band’s knack for suspense into four minutes of mesmerizing pop. Wider and more daring than their previous work, I See You is a document of a band pushing itself into new places and reaping the rewards. Sometimes delicate, sometimes overwhelming, it’s the perfect music for a smoke session with any strain, an action which is likely to only make it radiate that much stronger.
TELL US, what music have you been smoking to lately?