Depending on how you feel about the way music has charted itself over the last few years, you either love or hate The xx. OK, let’s face it: you love them, you’re told to love them, your dad’s heard them soundtrack a montage on Match of the Day so he loves them, and if you ever admitted anything different you’d be looked at with an expression of scorn normally reserved for kiddy-fiddlers.
But their influence is hard to ignore and as much cynicism as you want to approach this trio with, their efforts seem to triple in knocking all that down in the classiest way. I See You, they say, and then bloody well raise us a level we never even expected.
In the interim between this record and their last, it’s fair to say they’ve had a solo star in the form of Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx. Those beats take centre-stage from the outset on Dangerous, a dexterous and surprising mix of drum-pad dance and understated brass. Gone are those hushed, icy guitars and the ambient spaces between Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, instead replaced with a sense of boldness that we’ve not encountered from them before. On Hold feels like a band we’ve never heard before, a remarkable and hypnotic bout of new-wave invention.
But even in doing so, The xx feel like they’re gearing up for a punch that ends up as a gentle stroke. Sim and Croft appear not to fastidiously wait their turn to sing as before, but rather trying to match each other’s confidence; it’s deceptive on songs like A Violent Noise, however, which still very much rely on their see-saw chemistry and the light and shade their individual tones bring.
And it wouldn’t be an xx with ache and angst, which Croft always delivers better than her counterpart. Whether it’s the irony of Performance (“I’ve had to put on my own show”) or the closing Test Me, a song that touches their previous aesthetic but tingles the spine in creaking, whistling, altogether newer ways. The result is a remarkably polished record, one that may not necessarily be as brave and bold as The xx want us to think but one that resolutely proves a) they’re capable of more than just one trick, and b) even their most furtive movements are likely to send a new ripple through a tired landscape.