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Honesty in plain sight

The xx's (from left) Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim.
The xx's (from left) Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim.PHOTO: YOUNG TURKS

London band The xx wear their hearts on their sleeves in their third album, I See You

There is a gently seismic shift in the music of The xx. Where before the trio - still in their 20s - communicated to one another tangentially, here on their third album, they step forward into the light.

I See You is the London band's boldest, brightest statement of intent. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim have established eye contact and are singing to each other - even if they may be talking about someone else.

Producer-programmer Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx, has cast off his shyness and drapes multifarious hues onto the landscape.

Much like the way he stepped out of the shadow for his solo effort, the Grammy-nominated In Colour (2015), this time he glimpses vivid hues.

The second single, Say Something Loving, samples the 1978 track Do You Feel It? by the American pop-rock duo, Alessi Brothers, and goes straight into a beatific confession of love's ecstasy.



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"You say something loving/It's so overwhelming, the thrill of affection/Feels so unfamiliar/You say something loving," they sing, keen with sanguine longing against clattering bass standing in for heart palpitation. "Without hesitation it hits me, hits me/It feels so unfamiliar."

The unfamiliarity is the frisson characterising their best work.

This is why the shot of colour into the monochromatic template unsettles - their stock-in-trade is still the age-old conundrum of human communication, but you feel the tug of war between privacy and public confrontation.

This is especially acute in Performance, a one-woman dirge for Madley Croft to purge her own insecurities, especially in the wake of a string of family losses.

"You won't see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I'll put on a performance/I'll on a brave face," she sings. The bass guitar is plucked, pizzicato strings pause and everything stays still, if only for a second.

This is followed by Replica, which is about the three trying to resist the mistakes of their parents.

"25 and you're just like me/Is it in our nature to be stuck on repeat?" Sim sings over a looping bassline, with Madley Croft echoing the chorus: "They all say I will become a replica/Your mistakes were only chemical."

This awareness of the gap - between self and community, between future and legacy, between self-will and destiny - underlines their appeal.

You relate to the catchy On Hold, a song about a suspended romance that dissipates instead. Smith weaves in lines from I Can't Go For That (No Can Do), the 1981 hit by Hall & Oates, and you sing along, the world moving on.

Your heart breaks with Test Me, where Madley Croft comes clean on the tension between her and long-time friend, Sim, who was struggling with alcoholism.

"Just take it out on me/It's easier than saying what you mean/Test me, see if I break," she intones, shadowed by him, as the song ends on a breathtaking outro with Smith invoking sunrise, or sunset.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Honesty in plain sight'. Print Edition | Subscribe