June 2, 2015

Jamie xx's In Colour toes the line between celebration and melancholy

Jamie Smith has a tendency to look back. Raised on his parents’ soul records in the early ’90s before delving into the sounds of his native British dance music, his music captures the feeling of discovering and inhabiting an era after it has already passed.

Smith, better known as Jamie xx, is one third of the English trio The xx and also has producing credits with Alicia Keys and Drake, including the smash hit “Take Care,” featuring Rihanna. In Colour, which hit stores yesterday, is his first solo project. It was made available for streaming from iTunes as a “visual album” last week. The accompanying video features 42 minutes of colored, dancing rectangles and triangles that are surprisingly cinematic and mesmerizing to watch alongside the music.

Known for his reserved demeanor and unconventional live DJ sets—in which Otis Redding tracks are equally at home with contemporary electronic dance music—Smith’s sensibilities are delightfully nerdy. He is the solitary dude that goes to live shows and stands at the front of the venue, quietly nodding his head to the music while the crowd around him raves. On In Colour, his influences come primarily from ’90s British dance music, especially on the opening track “Gosh,” with its aggressive breakbeat and a pitch-lowered vocal sample from a pirate-radio show. These influences give the album a distinctly nostalgic feel, looking back on a once-vibrant culture that is now fading from London, club by shuttered club. Indeed, much of Smith’s exposure to British dance music came after the era had already passed, from videos he watched while feeling homesick on a world tour with The xx.

Despite the dance beats and synths, much of the music has the same subdued, melancholic quality of The xx’s first two albums. Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, the other two members of The xx, both make appearances, and there are a few moments in “Loud Places” and “Stranger in a Room” that would feel right at home on a full-band album.

But Smith has no trouble carving out his own identity for his solo project. Steel drums, which are fast becoming a Jamie xx staple, lend tracks like “Obvs” and “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times” a splash of bright, beachy sunlight. Indeed, “Good Times” is an early candidate for song of the summer, featuring a chorus from Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan and plenty of quotable verses from a particularly chirpy Young Thug. As the title suggests, this album is a jolt of color to The xx’s black and white. The tension between joy and sadness is what makes the music so compelling, giving its happier moments a bittersweet edge and its more reflective moments a sweeping, grandiose sense of tragedy.

These moments are best exemplified by the album’s closing tracks. “The Rest Is Noise” is the album’s highlight, a gorgeous, sprawling effort that builds uncertainty with moody piano notes and disembodied sirens, then pushes deeper into the night with a solemn, pulsing beat. “Girl” recalls past heartache, layering muted guitar and synths with an insistent snare and a distant, ominous brass swell. Both of these tracks create a sense of sadness and solitude, and then proceed to embrace it. They turn inward to find peace and beat on, and amidst the ’90’s samples and breakbeats, it is this that turns out to be timeless.