TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "I See You," the third album by the British group The xx. Their debut album won England's prestigious Mercury Prize in 2010. Ken says their normally smooth, atmospheric music is more dense and bold on "I See You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY SOMETHING LOVING")
THE XX: (Singing) Say something loving. I just don't remember the thrill of affection. I just don't remember. Say something loving. I need a reminder, the feelings escaped me.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Much of the music made by The xx is characterized by a soothing surge, a kind of comforting propulsion. The vocals of Oliver Sim and Romy Croft are cushioned by the electronic keyboards and production from third member Jamie Smith, who uses the name Jamie xx. Together, the three of them create atmospheric pop that contains an undercurrent of yearning.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON HOLD")
THE XX: (Singing) I don't blame you. We got carried away. I can't hold on to an empty space.
Now, you've found a new star to orbit. It could be love, I think you're too soon to call us old. When and where did we go cold? I thought I had you on hold. And every time I let you leave, I always saw you coming back to me. When and where did we go cold? I thought I had you on hold.
Where does it stop? Where do you stop?
TUCKER: That's "On Hold," a single from the album that uses Romy and Oliver's voices to invert the common, modern pop convention in which upbeat or fast or loud music is contrasted with melancholy lyrics. As often as not on that song and throughout this album, The xx creates music that is medium tempo, low key, often quiet. But the words they sing speak of the thrill of new romance or of reveling in the warm feelings a commitment to someone else can inspire. On the song "I Dare You," they sing about the rapture and intoxication of love as the electronic music kindles a warm soulfulness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DARE YOU")
THE XX: (Singing) I'm in love with it, intoxicated. I'm in rapture. From the inside I can feel that you want to. Way up high on it, feeling suspended. I'm enamored. Way up in the sky I can see that you want to.
I've been a romantic for so long. All I've ever heard are love songs. Singing, oh, oh, oh. Go on, I dare you. Oh, oh, oh, I dare you. I get chills...
TUCKER: In the past, The xx has made music so smooth, it's been inserted as background music into TV shows such as "Person Of Interest," "Suits" and "Cold Case." The shift in tone on the new album is to build songs that cannot be tucked away as mood music. The songs are more dense, with decorated melodies, fewer laid-back vocals and, in general, more assertive production. Listen to the way Jamie xx assembles the sounds of horns blaring a clarion call to romance on the composition, "Dangerous."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGEROUS")
THE XX: (Singing) They say we're in danger, but I disagree. If proven wrong, shame on me. But you've had faith in me. So I won't shy away. Should it all fall down, you'll have been my favorite mistake. They say you are dangerous, but I don't care. I'm going to pretend that I'm not scared. If this only ends in tears, then I won't say goodbye because I couldn't care...
TUCKER: The band has described this new album as being, quote, "more outward-looking, open and expansive." That's true. In the past, I've heard The xx's music as merely polite or droning. If you're not on The xx's wavelength, your ears might skip over the surface of the group's music and hear it only as pretty. But beneath its sleek beauty, there's a fresh joyousness and engagement that at its best is something close to inspirational.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "I See You" by the British group The xx. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about Hitler's use of oxycodone and cocaine during World War II, prescribed by his private doctors, and how German troops were given methamphetamine to stay awake and keep fighting for days. Some drugs were first tested on concentration camp inmates. My guest will be Norman Ohler, author of the new book, "Blitzed: Drugs In The Third Reich." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG COMPOSITION, "A BIT NERVOUS")
GROSS: We're closing with music by the Dutch pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg, who died Friday. He was 81. We've played his music a lot on our show, including this track from his 1994 album, "Who's Bridge."
(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG COMPOSITION, "A BIT NERVOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.