SP Mix: The xx and Julie Byrne Embrace Wide-Eyed Joy
Originally published on Same Page Team - February 10, 2017
Last month, I bought George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass. Very heavy thing. I’m a converted Beatles stan — my mom used to play #1’s on repeat while cooking — but I hadn’t committed much to their solo careers (apart from Paul McCartney, who still tops my Beatles Power Rankings).
All Things Must Pass is, of course, the 1970 debut of Harrison as a solo artist. He had a whole pile of ideas stacked in the corner for this album, having been silenced as Paul and John pioneered much of the Beatles catalogue. All these ideas came rushing out on All Things Must Pass, which plays like a gorgeous summer day; Harrison is teeming with brilliance here, as every track sounds more freeing than the last.
George Harrison created joyous music under the right circumstances. Nothing else in his solo career quite stood up to that impassioned post-Beatles period, where years of ideas culminated into one album. For many artists, it’s the same deal: you need the right inspiration to make music that sounds good, but feels good too.
For The xx and Julie Byrne, that inspiration has arrived; both artists created beautiful, jubilant albums this month, and both did it in very different ways.
The xx became darlings for something more shrouded, and less joyous, than what they’re putting out now.
Their debut xx came out in 2009, enticing listeners with precise guitar and breathy interplay between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. It was an album built on the sum of its parts. Croft and Sim didn’t just trade lyrics, they sounded like they were deep in conversation — the push and pull of a relationship acted out convincingly by friends.
On their new album I See You, this relationship is as present as ever. On standout “Say Something Loving,” Croft coos “Here come my insecurities / I almost expect you to leave” as Sim inflects beautifully in response: “I wasn’t patient to meet you / Am I too needy, am I too eager?”
The two are crystal clear lyricists, turning phrases with coy skill. When Sim slowly intones “The thoughts flow through my mind / and it’s growing all the ti-ime,” you hold on to the last note and feel the drama he’s intending to create.
The third piece to all this is Jamie xx, who has gone from third wheel to top billing on I See You. His solo debut in 2015 was his breakout, the lauded In Colour — a stunningly bright turn that will go down as one of electronic’s great long plays.
Jamie isn’t shy about applying the rainbow sheen of In Colour to I See You, either. Lead single “On Hold” samples Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” with unapologetic commitment — the sample acting as a chorus for a gorgeously upbeat track.
It adds up to an album where, as Croft puts it, the band “opened windows and let some light in.” Maturity has a big role in this evolution. Croft recently got engaged to her long-time girlfriend. Sim had a notable bout with alcoholism, which he addresses on “A Violent Noise.” Jamie xx has become a superstar, working with the likes of Four Tet in the wake of In Colour. Their natural interplay is good enough to reflect this growth, and I See You feels like a big step forward for the British trio.
Stateside, Julie Byrne has created joy in a more subdued way. The New York native’s new album Not Even Happiness comes from a singer-songwriter who lives in the world’s biggest city, but whose inspiration comes from the American countryside.
Byrne’s finger-picking and deep, sultry singing make her a natural heir to Leonard Cohen’s brand of folk. Her music has all of Cohen’s subtle intonation too. On “Natural Blue,” a quiet strings arrangement gives way to guitar and her lyrics on the lonely journey of touring. “Driving through southwestern towns / that I had been in before” she muses, before the song opens into a more loving turn: “But when I first saw you / the sky it was such a natural blue.” As it was with Cohen, you can’t always make out what Byrne is saying on Not Even Happiness, but her music gives away her inspiration — an organic, peaceful quest for quiet.
It’s kind of perfect that Byrne is a part-time park ranger. Her music, in lyric and in sound, is like a hike through a wooded forest. You can close your eyes, turn on this album, and imagine her playing an acoustic guitar under a 100-foot pine. Her reference to nature is at times coy, but other times direct. On “Follow My Voice,” she sings “To me, this city’s hell / but I know you call it home / I was made for the green / made to be alone.”
For some, joy is finding that time to be alone. The xx might be in opposition to that — I See You comes together best when Croft, Sim, and Jamie are all present and exuberant. Byrne, on the other hand, has created beauty and bliss in life’s more quiet moments.
Jamie xx – Loud Places (feat. Romy)
The xx – Say Something Loving
Sharon Van Etten – Afraid of Nothing
Beck – Blue Moon
Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better
Julie Byrne – Natural Blue
Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
George Harrison – My Sweet Lord