My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.
In Colour (Young Turks)
Dance is a diverse form of magic. Presented professionally, it is valorised as an art in its own right: a display of finesse and precision, immaculate and expressive. In its more accessible and common guise, on the other hand, ideas of craft are abandoned in lieu of a fundamental reach for escapism. Dancing leaves our brains on the backburner and releases our energy physically, clouding the regard for one’s own image (hence the risk of looking like a bit of a muppet). The feeling overrules the thinking, and – especially in concentrated environments – the rush of released endorphins unlocks a transcendental feeling of bliss: a sense of belonging and infinite potential, as anxieties melt away along with self-consciousness. The mechanics of the pleasure are incredibly basic, but a great dance record can make an instant, visceral connection such as this, where the compulsion is so swift and compelling that it utterly transports the listener.
He may be only several years into his career, but Jamie ‘xx’ Smith has already demonstrated an intuitive grasp of how dance music functions, applying his sonic Midas touch with an acuity which can be breathtaking. His reputation has steadily grown since his emergence in the late-noughties, operating as the thoughtful backbone of quiet champions The xx, remix artist par excellence, and producer-of-choice for a burgeoning legion of famous fans including Drake and Alicia Keys. With his CV so impressively stacked, Smith has become one of the leading lights in contemporary dance music, even if his persona is one which seems to be permanently shrouded at the back of the club. Surrounded by his more outspoken collaborators, he resembles a watcher in the shadows; a magpie whose curious mind is constantly alert to the sounds around him. As a result, even while heavily invested in his tentpole projects, Smith has amassed a broad collection of field notes and sonic morsels, which he decided to corral into his first solo album as late as autumn 2014.
It speaks dividends about Smith’s talent that in spite of its casual conception, In Colour is a phenomenal result. Smith takes the world chronicled in The xx’s work – lonely, delicate confessionals as intimate as whispers between friends – and floods it with light, filling the empty spaces with mesmeric beats, bright splashes of keyboards, and samples – of his own candid footage and homages to past greats alike. The xx’s music never sounds less than intensely personal, and Smith’s own sculptures can serve as insights into the tastes of an insatiable audiophile. Yet the auteur’s audience-savvy instincts elevate these tracks far beyond personal indulgence, as he taps into that transcendental escapism with a consistency that dazzles.
The irresistible tug of ‘Gosh’ dispenses such magic immediately. Its playful pirate radio samples and seismic, siren-like crescendos harness the wide-eyed excitement associated with the beginning of a journey – in most cases, a Journey to the Centre of the Rave. The effective, gleefully deliberate build-up is a sheer joy to return to, but as with much of In Colour, it’s a trick that never feels overthought. It’s polished, but not obsessively so, and likewise, Smith’s many influences are assimilated into the odyssey without sounding clunky or distracting. ‘Sleep Sound’ draws from the same twinkling ambience as Until the Quiet Comes-era Flying Lotus, braiding together dreamily cascading melodies and staccato vocal snippets into a pulsing shuffle. Elsewhere, one senses the warmth of Caribou, swirls of Orbital, and the starry fug of Floating Points, all brushed between the rave-ready beats which jump between ’90s house and modern breakbeat.
And then there’s the presence of The xx, whose signatures are never fully abandoned. While In Colour‘s trip is Smith’s own brainchild, these ‘narratives’ occasionally overlap with those of The xx, as Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s brief appearances come across like parallel events witnessed in the same space. It’s a balance perfected on ‘SeeSaw’, where Madley Croft’s voice floats in and out of the warm clatter like a solitary individual in a packed club. She makes a more direct return for ‘Loud Places’, though her yearning vocal is subverted and then glorified as Smith twists the melancholia into a neo-gospel plume, with the aid of Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’. Sim’s own outing on ‘Stranger in a Room’ is the cut which cleaves most closely to The xx’s traditional template, but the burbling electronic melody keeps the line drawn without disrupting In Colour‘s headier flow.
But leaving aside all baggage and just looking into the manifest sounds, In Colour is distinctive and flavoursome enough to stand alone. Put simply, these are just great tunes, man. They don’t need overwrought analyses or lofty interpretations to work, because they sound terrific of their own accord; sleeky produced and seamlessly sequenced into a fantastic single listen. As with all nights out, there is a misstep or two along the way; most noticeably the cameo of Young Thug, whose incongruously X-rated verses almost derail the otherwise glorious ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. His crude wordplay chafes awkwardly with the album’s otherwise blissful tone, but if you can tune out Thug’s references to his squishy dick, there’s barely a blemish to be found on In Colour. From the giddy pulse of ‘Gosh’ through to the crystal-cool swagger of ‘Girl’, it’s a near-flawless showcase for Smith to loosen up and transport his audience to higher places, proving dance’s power as a catalyst for an extraordinary experience.
“OH MY GOSH.”