Album Review: Jamie xx, ‘In Colour’
Will there be a more innocuous album released this year than Jamie xx’s In Colour?
Jamie Smith came to fame as a member of the xx (which he started with school friends Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft) and they made a rapid ascent in 2009 with their artfully moody sound. Their albums are today’s answer to Chet Baker or Joao Gilberto – an embodiment of a certain type of cool chic.
At a time when bands grouped under the label “indie” were forced to expand their palette or become irrelevant, the xx seemed to offer a way forward. They pulled together R&B, electronic music and soft, suave pop. This was not a novel mix: mainstream R&B and adult contemporary have been working this blend of sounds for decades. The xx’s innovation was to take a sound that had been previously scorned by indie performers as overly slick and commercial and transformed it into something critics went head over heels for.
But the xx were more than just a sensation in the music press. They also took home England’s prestigious Mercury prize in 2010 and their debut was certified gold stateside. This helped launch Smith as a force in his own right as a producer. The title track to Drake’s Take Care (the album that propelled him to superstardom) relied on one of Jamie’s beats, and he has also worked with Radiohead and Alicia Keys among others.
Smith's solo debut as Jamie xx, In Colour, generated a lot of pre-release buzz, possibly because he went with a traditional rollout instead of dropping it with little to no warning like Drake and D'Angelo. Instead of revealing everything all at once, Jamie xx exposed his music in a long, slow tease. But the release style is far from the only old-fashioned thing about the album. Much attention has been given to the samples, pulled from documentaries about the English dance scene – Smith's loving tribute to a past he wasn’t a part of. In Colour also nods to the past with its length: a mere 11 songs and 42 minutes. The album is impressively self-contained and concise in an era when the value of brevity is largely forgotten. However, this feels less like a courageous stance against excess and more like the fear that taking up time is a potential affront to listeners. In Colour is here and gone before you know it.
But the albums traditional fixings don’t feel like a search to recapture something lost. Instead, they mostly work to make the whole enterprise as inoffensive as possible. The samples often serve mainly as signposts and, for all the talk about his love of old dance and rave, none of the songs lasts more than five minutes. The greatness of the sampler has always stemmed from its ability to smash together time periods that could never have coexisted otherwise, reconciling opposing forces. But there is nothing to reconcile here – just a reassurance that Jamie xx has studied his elders.
Ultimately, this is lifestyle music for critics, calibrated to form the smoothest of surfaces and surrounding the listener in a cozy bubble. Like Feist’s The Reminder or Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it’s an album that will do well on year-end best of lists despite being mostly boring.
There are a few moments when you think Jamie xx is setting you up for a breakthrough, as though he’s about to punch through the elegance. “Sleep Song” relies on an itchy beat and vocals with a religious influence; there is potential for sparks here, but the track never registers so much as a ripple on the seismograph. “Loud Places” also comes with a gospel tinge, and it almost attains dynamism. But its percussion stays buried; when it arrives, Jamie spreads it out, attenuating its power. That’s the clever (but maybe too clever joke: it’s called “Loud Places,” but it never gets loud.
Not being loud isn’t necessarily a problem, of course: softness is not intrinsically less valuable than toughness. It’s far more difficult to communicate tension and nuance with gentleness, to disturb that calm surface without necessarily puncturing it. In Colour, however, does neither: The beats sigh and flicker and the vocals drift and linger with softness inherently devoid of risk. It’s appealing, but it’s also tepid. The seduction is short-lived because seduction contains push and pull and persuasion and effort, while Jamie xx believes mostly in technique.
Still, In Colour is an impeccable, artfully-blended collection of signifiers that attempt to fool you into feeling. Dance pulse? Check. There are a number of rhythmic grids at work, but nothing too aggressive and nothing that might disturb the peace. Like moody late ‘50s vocal jazz, this is swaying music. Exoticism? Check. Steel drums offer a touch of the Caribbean in the same way bossa nova offers Americans an easily accessible fantasy of Brazil. Pretty vocals? Check. Both singers from the xx show up.
All of this ends up being the ideal soundtrack for consumption. To put it in the words of "Daisy" from The Great Gatsby, the music “sounds like money.” It's polite, gleaming and charming. These tracks will sell you things you didn’t know you needed and it will feel great. Every song is probably already licensed for an Apple commercial.
Even “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” – the all-star, eye-poppingly cross-genre collaboration between Jamie xx, Atlanta rapper Young Thug and dancehall singer Popcaan – is basically a DJ Mustard beat sapped of its energy. Jamie strips away the rhythmic shouts, bursts of high-hats and explosive syncopation that characterize Mustard’s hits. What you have left fits perfectly with the rest of In Colour: thin, carefree, sunny blobs of synth. Look at it sideways and it might just disappear.
But what separates “I Know” is the presence of Young Thug. To this point, no one has figured out how to smooth out this rapper’s rough edges. He basically ignores the beat; his delivery is weird and out of tune and snappish. He even goes so far as to talk about sex, which feels shocking in the context of the other songs on the album. You might want more Popcaan, more fluidity, more melody. This is the only moment where Jamie doesn’t give you those things, the only startling move from a producer obsessed with the anodyne. Luckily for the ad agencies, there are ten other tracks on In Colour.