By lovingly exploring the sounds of eras past, Jamie xx generates a sound that's all his own
Before pulling together In Colour, the British producer Jamie xx (born Jamie Smith) spent over a half-decade subtly shaping the sounds of pop, R&B, and electronic music. As a member of the xx, Smith crafted austere, hyper-intimate nuggets of indie pop, songs that’d inspire a legion of imitators and push much of the genre towards grayscale, dimmer switch compositional approaches; working on his own as a producer and remixer, he presided over a tender and striking reframing of poet Gil Scott-Heron’s final studio album and worked with stars like Drake and Alicia Keys. The A-side of his debut solo single, 2011’s “Far Nearer / Beat For,” turned a piece of an iconic Janet Jackson vocal (from 1989’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”) into another beat in a Balearic tapestry and set blogs around the world on fire.
He then went silent for three years, working and touring with the xx and chipping away at new material. Having been plucked from his London home turf by his band’s success and his own growing reputation as a DJ and producer, he fought off homesickness by immersing himself in the city’s various underground scenes: its constantly mutating electronic music, its many various sub-genres formed through fusions with largely black music like dancehall and hip-hop, the pirate radio and rave culture that characterized the last decades of the 20th century.
That became the connection at the root of In Colour: a real love for music and an appreciation of its palliative powers, its ability to render an emotional ache less painful or to capture its intensity. Like Kendrick Lamar simulating a conversation with Tupac Shakur at the end of this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly to render his connection to the past explicit, Smith engages in a dialogue with his influences and predecessors: the soul and doo-wop singers of generations past, the beatific ravers of the ’90s, the smoothness and ghostly rattle of last decade’s garage and proto-dubstep. The album is steeped in a rich musical tradition, but it doesn’t feel exclusive. Instead of erecting virtual barriers to entry, it welcomes listeners, invites them to explore the sounds and scenes Smith treats with reverence. And having established links to the musical past, Smith plays with the slippery nature of time by framing these songs in terms of memory and expectation: the melancholy contemplation of the stunning “Loud Places,” featuring bandmate Romy, played against the gleeful anticipation of summer jam-in-waiting “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).”
There’s plenty to highlight on In Colour—and you could argue that doing so detracts from the album’s thoughtful sequencing—but one specific four-song stretch highlights Smith’s versatility, skill, and deft emotional touch. It begins with “Hold Tight,” folding in sounds from the underground: oscillating synth waves that blink like headlights past a window, a shadowy and a stuttering rhythm pulled from the playbook of pioneering UK producer Burial, coming together in a club track for closing time. The aforementioned “Loud Places” is rich and emotive, hanging on an incredible vocal performance and an excavated piece of Idris Muhammad’s 1977 disco romp “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”; it manages to capture and communicate a very specific feeling, the sensation of navigating a crowded space while feeling entirely alone. “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is catharsis, pop-R&B buoyed by the energy of guests Young Thug and Popcaan—the sunrise after a long and dark night. And “The Rest Is Noise” is the denouement, pulling in elements from each preceding song for one last wistful look at the dancefloor.
Each of these songs is a success in its own right, but taken together they approach transcendence: they talk to and complement each other, work together to reveal Smith’s unique command and breadth of knowledge, invite the listener to consider the intentions and experiences of the mind behind them. That’s a lot to accomplish in fifteen minutes, and it’s the best argument for In Colour’s status as one of the year’s most striking albums so far.