For a band that often gets described as “minimal,” the xx pack a massive amount of drama and emotion into their subtle music. The U.K. trio specialize in Zen restraint, blurring the line between indie guitar pop, R&B and dance music in stripped-down songs that are as sleek and eerie as they are weirdly inviting. It’s the perfect stark backdrop for the way bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim and guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft build thick tension out of minute intimacy, doing more with awkward eye-contact, muttered confessions or mid-breakup negotiations than most bands do with a whole love affair.
On the first two xx albums, 2009’s xx and 2012’s Coexist, every bit of music – be it a ripple of reverb-heavy guitar or a dubby bass line or a distant drum hit – seemed organized for maximum less-is-more impact. Credit for that goes to the band’s producer-drummer Jamie Smith (a.k.a. Jamie xx), who also moonlights as one of the best dance-music artists in the world (see the laid-back, highbrow house tracks on his 2015 solo LP In Colour). He really kicks up his game on the xx’s third album, with a more expansive sound that’s thick with disco throb, eclectic pop grandeur and big- ballad hunger.
The way the vocals are strung between hope and hurt feels especially intense, as if the singers are characters in a modern noir romance. The opening track, “Dangerous,” begins with heraldic trumpet flares before settling into a skittering, dark-lit groove; Croft and Sim sing together, “I won’t shy away should it all fall down,” like their relationship is a house of cards they’re willing into something stronger. The single “On Hold” recalls the Human League with its brooding boy-girl back-and-forth: “Every time I let you leave/I always saw you coming back to me,” Sim sings, as a brittle electro-burble pushes against a cleverly flipped sample of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” Croft is especially potent, further cementing her place in the great tradition of introspective English synth-pop divas, from Yaz’s Alison Moyet to Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn; she can make a line like “here come my insecurities” feel like a late-night battle cry.
At times, the sonic settings are almost spacious enough to hold an Adele song; on “Performance,” Croft croons about having to imagine a whole new persona for herself because the reality of heartbreak is just too brutal. It’s ironic, though, because the xx have never been so unguarded, either emotionally or in their musical ambitions. The result is as haunting as ever.