The xx is the kind of band that makes you raid your thesaurus looking for synonyms for the word otherworldly. Haunting, ethereal, ghostly and spectral come to mind as apt descriptors for this British alternative trio’s singular sound.
Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, childhood friends-turned-bandmates, share vocal duties, as they take turns narrating tales of aching insecurities and emotions laid bare. Jamie Smith mans the synths, samples and beats that contribute significantly to band’s ambient cinematic vibe.
“We’ve definitely come across as moody vampires,” Madley Croft recently told Vanity Fair. And that description of The xx is as good—or better—than any of the adjectives I might sift out of my thesaurus.
“Brave for You” tenderly promises to be strong, because a now-absent friend would have counseled courage: “Though you’re not here/I can feel you there/I take you along/And when I’m scared/I imagine you’re there/Telling me to be brave/So I will be brave for you.”
“Say Something Loving” articulates the feelings an insecure person experiences when he or she begins to believe someone could offer unconditional love: “You say something loving/It’s so overwhelming, the thrill of affection/Feels so unfamiliar.” Later on, both Madley Croft and Sim express their own deep fears about opening their hearts to someone. “Here come my insecurities/I almost expect you to leave,” she sings. “Were you really looking for me?/ … Am I too needy, am I too eager?” he adds.
There’s similar stuff as the band confronts crippling fear in “A Violent Noise.” “I’ve got so cautious,” we hear early on. “How could eyes this wide/Lose sight of a world outside?/I’ve looked away, cowardice/ … With everything, I pretend not to feel.” The song possibly suggests that music can be an unhealthy and emotionally numbing escape from reality: “Is the music too loud for me to hear?/Now I go out/But every beat is a violent noise.” Meanwhile, another voice encourages, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Performance” plumbs the psychological depths as we hear the confession of someone who’s trying to pretend everything is OK (“I’ll put on a show/It is a performance/I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart breaks”). But the singer desperately hopes someone who knows her intimately will see through that emotional charade (“Even when I was hurting/You could always find me/Now you’ve stopped looking for me/But I’m still playing hide and seek/I want you to notice”).
Lusty, brooding “Lips” talks of lovers bathing together (“High on intimacy/Drawing me a bath”) and of the immersive totality of sexual union (“I just want it all/ … In my head, in my veins/In the way you give and take/In the way that you weigh/On my body, on my brain”). “Say Something Loving” includes this mildly suggestive line: “Your touch stays on my skin/I feel it start sinking in.”
Similarly suggestive stuff turns up in the song “On Hold” (“You’ve got the body, you’ve got the body/Dare me to, dare me to”). “I Dare You” uses the words “intoxicated” and “high” to try to describe an overwhelming infatuation.” A likely sex reference is found in the line, “Side by side, and I know that you want to.”
“Dangerous” describes the reckless pursuit of a relationship despite warning signs that it’s fraught with emotional peril: “So I won’t shy away/Should it all fall down/You’ll have been my favorite mistake,” we hear. The woman longing for someone to see her hurts in “Performance” ultimately loses hope and collapses in herself: “But you just don’t see/The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me.”
“Test Me” closes out the album with weary capitulation to emotionally abusive patterns in a dysfunctional relationship: “Just take it out on me/It’s easier than saying what you mean/ … I’ll take it out on you/It’s easier than talking it through.”
For years, the three musicians who comprise The xx were so awkwardly shy onstage that they could barely look at their audiences during performances. Which is ironic, really, because it’s hard to conceive of a band writing lyrics that are much more emotionally raw than these. Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes described The xx as “one of the most painfully vulnerable bands on earth.” And I’d have to agree.
The question for us, then, is what to make of such aching authenticity. Is it admirable? Appropriate? Healthy? Unhealthy?
I’m not sure that there’s a single answer to those questions. I suspect I See You could be cathartic for some young fans, helping them process their own pain and to realize they’re not alone. That said, this album doesn’t do much more than poignantly articulate the band’s wincing insecurities and crippling fears. Romance occasionally provides a glimmer of hope. But it’s frequently paired with sex and just as often becomes the source of more deepest heart-wrenching agonies.
The xx’s latest might very well stir up deep feelings. But it doesn’t offer much guidance for what to do with them once they’ve been uncovered.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.