The British trio's third album is their boldest work yet
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Credit: Alasdair McLellan

Listening to the xx used to feel like eavesdropping on the most private of conversations. On 2009’s xx and 2012’s Coexist, vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim traded tales of desire and longing like whispered secrets, while in-house producer Jamie xx provided a fragile spine of bedroom R&B and electronic pop. That minimalist aesthetic turned the British trio into unlikely tastemakers—Rihanna sampled their song “Intro,” Shakira ­covered “Islands,” Madonna and Beyoncé sought out their live shows—but it also started to constrict them. So for their third LP, I See You, the group decided to dismantle the formula, abandoning the usual constraints of a live band and embracing dazzling studio techniques for the first time. The payoff is the boldest work yet from a band famous for subtlety—the sound of the xx hitting the caps-lock key.

It takes only a few seconds for the opening track, “Dangerous,” with its blaring horn loop and frenetic drumbeat, to take the xx where they’ve never gone before: the club. But for fans of Jamie xx’s solo album, 2015’s critically acclaimed In Colour, the more danceable tunes won’t be such a jarring transformation. His palette of pitched-down vocal samples and eerie keyboards is such a distinct sonic fingerprint that at times I See You feels like a Jamie xx record that just happens to feature his other bandmates. That’s not a bad look by any means. While the flashier, more expansive soundscapes threaten the band’s very essence, in theory—for the xx, the pauses and silences around the notes have always been as important as the notes themselves—Jamie xx’s production rarely drowns out the drama. Instead, the alarmlike synths on “A Violent Noise” and the pitter-patter percussion driving “On Hold” only heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Madley Croft and Sim sing about.

It still requires a lot of concentration and focus to unpack all the layers competing for listeners’ attention, but those who do will find no shortage of compelling material: Madley Croft sings about the loss of her ­parents, who died at separate times when she was young, for the first time on the delicate “Brave for You,” while the haunting closer “Test Me” seemingly alludes to the strain of Sim’s struggles with alcohol on the group’s friendship. (He is now sober.) “I don’t know where I went wrong/Tell me, should I see someone?” Madley Croft sings over bare piano chords. It’s one of the few songs on I See You that still embrace restraint—a sign that the band hasn’t lost its talent for turning their quiet vulnerabilities into an unexpected gut-punch. A–

Key tracks

“On Hold”
A chopped-and-screwed Hall & Oates sample is the centerpiece of this relationship postmortem

“I Dare You”
A warm, uptempo ode to all-consuming infatuation

“Test Me”
Madley Croft shines on this stark account of intra-band tension