The xx Have Been Humanizing Pop for Nearly a Decade: Critic's Take

Alasdair McLellan
The XX

As of this week, London trio The xx quietly — everything this band does is quiet — accumulated five great albums between them. Begin with 2009’s xx (note the mousey lowercase), an instant-classic debut whose influence has managed to outlast even Animal Collective’s high-watermark Merriweather Post Pavilion from the same year, spend a little more time with 2012’s slept-on (and slept-to) Coexist, which was hushed and full of gorgeous negative space, and invert the whole formula for the uptempo third album I See You, which is out today and already fending off Chainsmokers comparisons. Between those three- and five-year gaps, respectively, the group’s longtime secret weapon Jamie xx became their unlikely breakout star, with two of his own works: 2011’s We’re New Here, which remixed Gil Scott-Heron’s final statement I’m New Here with a dazzling new palette of darkly kaleidoscopic textures, and 2015’s In Colour, a proper solo debut that recalled Moby’s Play in its austere melding of gospel samples and floor-filling beats. (Young Thug was its Gwen Stefani.)

And yes, they’re soft-spoken. In the aural fact, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim rarely project their entwined voices louder than a whisper, but also their unscripted modesty gives them an advantage over say, Grimes, when an album takes half a decade to arrive. Maybe it’s due to their under-sharing, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long and it doesn’t feel like the xx have been around for eight years either. That’s because they slowly burned their insignia into the landscape via both their own quality output and some impossible strokes of pop luck, when Rihanna sampled xx’s “Intro” for “Drunk on Love” and Drake’s own RiRi duet remade Jamie and Gil’s “I’ll Take Care of You” as the radio smash “Take Care,” still featuring Sim’s frail, signature palm-muted guitar, reverbed to hell. They’ve palled around with Beyoncé and Kanye since, mostly conversing over shared music geekery.

But the secret to their longevity (besides predicting-or-detonating an allied alt/R&B renaissance that has yet to let up) also just plainly has to do with their good nature. Even though these shy, now-20-somethings probably hate interviews as much as a veteran crank like J Mascis, they’ve minded their manners with prodding journalists. Even their tensest lyrics detail an uncommon empathy in the seesawing personae dramatis relationship Croft and Sim put forth, even though they’re not oriented toward’s each other’s gender in real life:  “Don’t think that I’m pushing you away / When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest.” The single-note guitar melodies that have decreased since their debut curl around these realist-romance trifles like an arm on a shoulder.

They’ve made a name for themselves by collaborating with icons who can often feel like avatars and providing a rare counterweight, like Jamie’s solo “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” lending an atypically muted, reverent backdrop to an Instagram mirage like Young Thug. That pairing couldn’t be stranger, but the two managed to tap into their shared mystery and turn it inside-out, for probably the most accessible pop song either camp had yet attempted. The crudely relatable Drake seemed unusually poised and gracious against this sound, while they helped guide Rihanna away from her android-hook beginnings and toward the more soulful abstractions of Anti.

They don’t brag about using identifiable instruments (or sampling them, like the triumphant horns that fleck new album opener “Dangerous”), or not using Auto-Tune, but they do these things anyway. The xx’s sound is marked by keeping the human elements of pop alive; even in the way Jamie incorporates the sampled human voice and cuts up drums you can hear a room, whether it’s a simulated one with studio tricks or the ghostly remnants of a real dance floor that slowly bled out into cabs pointed home. In Colour actually had a song literally titled “Stranger in a Room,” which featured Sim of course. The title could be a coinage for an xx effects preset.

On third album I See You, out today (Jan. 13), Jamie particularly brings back to the band the skills he’s developed as a DJ during the EDM boom. It’s not difficult to imagine the pinging, faint guitar-synths of “A Violent Noise” over a trop-house beat, but the arrangement only provides the barest suggestion of it, tricking your brain into filling in the drums, which are glimpsed halfway through but never actually fully appear. On Frank Ocean’s wildly acclaimed Blonde last year, several tunes performed the same trick, particularly “Ivy,” which boasted a guitar line that could’ve come from xx if you put a little more echo on it. If nothing else, we should give the 2009 debut a hand for combining the circular ostinatos of the coolest band of the ‘80s (New Order) with the smoky creep of the coolest band of the ‘90s (Portishead). But it wouldn’t be absurd to suggest that it single-handedly kept acoustic space cool to the class who would go on to become pop’s elite in the 2010s.

They’ve also kept this sound honest, imparting an earnest tenderness to lyrics like “Brave for You,” about the deaths of Croft’s parents that justifies the muted but nonexistent humor in their stark, distant-cannonball-or-billiard-rack percussion devices. But it's not reverence that makes the xx great (and the screwed-and-chopped Hall and Oates of “On Hold” is hardly pure), just the fact they can be so graceful and humble about doing things that scores of self-serious dirge-prone divas or dancehall-diluters have done before them and failed to make something of. The xx are up there with Kanye and their echoing Bristol kin Burial as major artists who''ve shaped current pop as we know it, and it never feels like a slight when they get props for it. They’re skeletal but never leave you wanting for flesh. They’re dark but never stray from the assurance that they know there’s gonna be good times.