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Their third studio album shows expansive growth in all possible directions.

By Amanda Wicks

The xx return today with their third studio album, I See You. Where the group’s first two albums held tightly to a confined structure that generated greater experimentation because of the very limits they drew around their songwriting, their latest shows expansive growth in all possible directions.

Related: The xx, LCD Soundsystem and Phoenix to Headline Shaky Knees 2017

To start, Jamie Smith’s carefully chosen and arranged samples sweep across the album’s landscape while Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim’s vocals display greater confidence. As a result, The xx deliver a brooding album laced with the kind of detailed production that serves to underscore each song’s emotionally taut quality.

Here are the five best songs on I See You.

“I Dare You”  – Perhaps the album’s most hopeful song in both subject matter and mood, “I Dare You” finds Sim and Madley-Croft joining forces for a sparkling duet that contains traces of 1980s pop. It takes both a moment to reach the chorus, but once they do they practically burst (or, as much as the xx can burst vocally) with exhilaration. “Oh, go on I dare you/ Oh, I dare you,” they sing about the love they’ve found.

“Lips”  – From the choral introduction, “Lips” promises to be something extravagant and it doesn’t disappoint. As those initial voices fade away to a steady beat, Madley-Croft’s voice enters the conversation, luxuriating in the exquisite pain and pleasure her lover causes. Sim comes in on the chorus to harmonize before taking the lead on the second verse, his restrained voice juxtaposing the squealing synths in the background for a powerful effect.

“On Hold” – “On Hold” exists like something of an outlier on an album that tends to walk the brooding path. The subject matter may fall within those bounds, but the song’s mood and rhythm make it soar. On the chorus, Smith incorporates a sample from Hall and Oates’ 1981 song, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” but he reworks it–by chopping and looping–in such a way that heightens the friction emanating throughout.

“A Violent Noise” – The staggered opening synths in “A Violent Noise” feel anxious, and it’s a sensation Sim continues with his bewildered vocals. He tries to lose himself in the club only to find that the isolating atmosphere there creates even greater anxiety. “With every beat comes a violent noise,” he sings on the chorus, his voice contrasting the firework-like crescendo which leads to a surprise ending.

“Performance” – The xx dash the notion that big build-ups yield bigger drops in “Performance,” where tense strings practically screech to a punctuating silence. Instead of a bass drop, Madley-Croft’s voice echoes against the quiet space and offers listeners a surprising twist.  Throughout the song, she delivers an incredible performance, straining to hold herself together in the wake of shattering heartbreak and showing how less actually creates so much more.

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