The XX’s new album, I See You (Young Turks), is one of the most uninterestingly beautiful recordings in recent memory. This album wants you to stand back and admire its remarkable, professional sheen. It knows exactly where in The XX’s career arc it stands, and it’s more than happy to receive all the praise that’s headed its way. Wikipedia will tell you (twice) that its concept is “expansive.” Indeed, in 2015, Jamie (Smith) XX released an album (In Colour) full of fantastically playful electronic music. A few of the more bizarre choices on that record proved that electronic music could be earnest, funny, and tight at the same time. And so, one would expect some of that to carry over here, right?
On the album opener, “Dangerous,” and lead single “Say Something Lovely,” the production is indeed both clever and rich. But the vocalists, Romy and Oliver, sing like two dumbfounded teenagers, emoting a cloying lack of substance. These songs go nowhere, they say nothing, and they fail to provoke any sort of honest emotion. The third track is called “Lips,” and it’s guaranteed to be a hit on the freshman make-out circuit. Its pulsing bass is as aimless as a 19-year-old’s libido. Indeed, the whole middle of the album is flailing drama, with the production taking a backseat so we can focus on the lyrics, which are peppered with pseudo-paradoxes like “everything I pretend not to feel” and “will you hear what I don’t say?” There’s a vague theme about the “real me,” and although pop sentiments need not be complex, these tracks have all the vigor of a Drakkar Noir advertisement.
Things pick up momentarily for “On Hold,” the chorus of which cuts up the classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” But what does it tell us that the only effervescent moment on the album is built on a Hall & Oates sample? Jamie can’t save the whole album, and whatever heart he accessed for In Colour is painfully absent. I See You was rumored to be a big step forward for The XX, but alas it’s just one long, boring stride toward the middle of the road.