The grumpy stereotype that attached to The xx circa their 2009 debut album was misleading. The London art-pop trio were, without question, deeply serious, even po-faced, about their music and had the crestfallen aspect of people who saw rainclouds at the edge every silver lining.
However, they weren’t quite the startled deers in headlights they were often portrayed as, with even their earliest releases demonstrating unsinkable confidence and breadth of vision. Under the goth trench coats and bleak quiffs were musicians who knew what they were about and determined not to have their heads turned by early success (including a 2010 Mercury Music Prize nomination).
Self-belief remains a key component. Five years on from their grim, gripping second album Coexist the group return with a record no less cohesive yet sharply different in tone. With I See You they step blinking into the sunlight, the previous mopey introversion replaced by exuberance and an infectious determination to fully inhabit the moment.
None of this was an accident. In the interim guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft has participated in songwriting camps in Los Angeles and beat marshaller Jamie Smith has worked with Drake and, 12 months ago, released a celebratory solo record.
“As you get older you realise you have to interact with people,” he explained to me last year. “You have to think about the big picture — make an effort in social situation.”
Such widening of horizons is a defining aspect of I See You, which skips from lullingly bittersweet opener ‘Dangerous’ — a dubstep Exocet crossed with a sobbing dirge — to the glittering ‘Say Something Loving’, where Madley Croft’s voice movingly intertwines with that of Oliver Sim.
Surprises abound, with single ‘On Hold’ sampling Hall and Oates (big sleeved 1980s pop is an influence throughout) and ‘Performance’ dispensing with the grooves for a jagged ballad. Big, brighter, determined to seize the hour, I See You is jar of sunshine that promises to light the way in troubled times.