In a world of superhero TV shows connected with superhero movies connected with superhero comics, Tarantino films about films about films, and pop hits that set legal precedent as they imitate the “feel” of classics, “recycled” is no longer an epithet of any meaning when applied to art. Some cultural works mine the past for the cynical purpose of not having to make anything original, and some do it for the clever purpose of using what’s come before to create something that’s actually new. But the mere fact of having reused something, it would seem, is value neutral: A work of art is neither good nor bad merely because it looks back.
You have to keep this in mind when reading about music these days, and especially when evaluating the acclaim surrounding Jamie xx’s new album, In Colour. A lovely New Yorker essay last month by Hua Hsu pointed to the 1999 experimental film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore as a decoder for the work of Jamie Smith, who’s half of the successful indie-rock act The xx and who’s worked on songs for Drake, Rihanna, and Gil Scott Heron. That film itself was a pastiche of footage from three decades of nightclub dancing, from 70s discoteques to 90s warehouse raves, and its woozy, nocturnal score captures something about the emotions of dance culture rather than imitating the actual sound of it. Like that film, Smith’s music looks back at dance heydays from before his time without aping them.
I’m not well acquainted with UK rave history, and reading Hsu’s piece after spending some time within In Colour was a bit of a revelation. The synthesizer that beams through the spookily gorgeous opener “Gosh,” it turns out, “recalls the melody of the 1991 rave anthem ‘Belfast,’ by Orbital” and the vocal sample that gives that song its title comes from an unaired BBC radio show about underground dance music. The rest of the album is peppered with similar references. Hsu calls In Colour Smith’s “homage to club culture—or a version of it that you might imagine if you’ve arrived a few years late, after the pirate radio stations have been shuttered and the legendary after-hours spot has been converted into condos.”
Is it essential to know all of this context, listening to the album? Certainly, the primer helps explain why Jaime xx’s music sounds the way it does. The songs are largely instrumental collages that seem somewhat decayed, with breakbeats making a muffled clamor like animals rummaging through abandoned houses. But without being aware of the nostalgic ethos behind the music, you can still get the gist of a track like “Sleep Sound,” which has chopped-up doo wop song, a snippet of a woman lazily saying “yeah,” and a churning bass line that’s often left unaccompanied. It evokes what it’s like to be tossing and turning as the neighbors party loudly, and I’ve found myself humming the melody that emerges from the din.
Similarly, it takes no foreknowledge to be enraptured by a track like “The Rest Is Noise,” an expanding-and-contracting swirl of electronic distortion, handclaps, waterfalling piano, and chiming noises. Nor do you need to study up to sway along to “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” a potential summer hit featuring rapper Young Thug and dancehall singer Popcaan over lackadaisical finger snaps and a sample of the Persuasions that a Persuasions singer apparently forgot he OKed. Some of the songs make far less of an impression, even after multiple listens and some reading around about what’s being sampled. A good text is a good text, and a bad text is a bad text; referentiality might deepen one’s appreciation, but it can’t account for it.
In fact, perhaps the most thrilling thing about the album is how alien it can seem when completely divorced from its source material. “Gosh” rides a beat that sounds like a tennis-ball machine firing at a squeaky toy; the “oh my gosh!” sample could come from a Vine or a medieval TV show or be an original recording—there’s fun in not knowing. And the much-discussed keyboard that enters towards the end seems so out of place and yet is so viscerally affecting that it’s nice to imagine its inclusion resulted from a mistake.
The other bit of outside knowledge that can shape one’s understanding of the album concerns Smith’s original band, The xx. Smith and singer Romy Madley-Croft are responsible for some of the most devastating relationship songs of the past decade, and when Madley-Croft shows up on a few songs here’s it’s a cue to tune in to a slightly different emotional frequency, one where lyrics suddenly matter. With a keyboard pattern that whirs like a malfunctioning control panel and a hip-hop beat that fades in and out, the music in “Seesaw” dramatizes Romy’s simple, sighed mantra: “I’m on a seesaw, up and down with you.” And on album highlight “Loud Places,” she sings about going out at night to try and replace a lover who’s left her, before multi-tracked male voices back her up: “I have never reached such heights.” Even if you don’t realize those voices come from a song released 38 years ago, the sentiment expressed feels eternal.