It’s now more than five years since The xx released an album, and over a decade since the shy Putney trio were the toast of the British music scene. Their minimal, romantic sound was all over TV and film clips, their debut album won the Mercury Prize, and their ubiquity earned them some huge headlining gigs.
They haven’t split, but are definitely in a solo phase now. Stepping away from the band name sounds like a weight lifted. Producer Jamie Smith didn’t stray too far from the twin crosses, given that he trades as Jamie xx, but his 2015 album In Colour was a bright, brilliant leap towards the dancefloor and he released another euphoric single, Let’s Do It Again, this April. Meanwhile co-frontperson Romy Madley Croft has given her soft vocals to two blissed out recent dance singles, Lifetime and Lights Out.
That leaves Oliver Sim, who doesn’t sound quite so unshackled by the idea of working alone. His debut solo album is produced by Smith, and though Madley Croft’s duetting voice is missed as a lighter ingredient, stark slow songs such as Confident Man and Saccharine could sit easily on xx albums.
“I’ve never had a taste for the saccharine,” he sings on the latter, which is obvious from the moment you set horrified eyes on the album cover. The letters of his name and the self-loathing title appear to have been hammered into his bleeding face and neck. A love of film comes across in the relatively light-footed Run the Credits, but he isn’t identifying with the heroes: “Disney princes, my god I hate them/I’m Buffalo Bill, I’m Patrick Bateman.”
The xx’s unadorned sound and non-specific lyrics left plenty of space for the listener to project their own thing, whether they were a lovesick teen or the BBC news team looking for a suitable soundtrack to 2010 general election coverage. Here, Sim couldn’t be more personal. The last line of the opening song, his debut single Hideous, dares to reveal something he hadn’t spoken about in public before: “Been living with HIV since 17/Am I hideous?” he sings over a tearful string section.
On Unreliable Narrator, he sings about lowering his voice to change his character. On Fruit, the standout chorus, he wonders if his parents are proud of him. Though he isn’t skipping through the nightclubs like his bandmates, his album sounds like a long and positive exhalation, a welcome chance to bring his musical and personal identity into focus.