It’s Oliver Sim who turns ‘Replica’, on The xx’s 2017 album I See You, from a merely good song into a moving pinnacle of their discography. Often mistaken for a weak link in the band’s setup, ‘Replica’ finds him taking centre stage unlike ever before, using his emotive baritone to lay bare his inner fears about family demons. It hits deep. When he announced his debut solo album, I hoped for more of this. The xx are a finely tuned machine when together; each member carefully using their talents to create an alchemy of minimalist atmosphere. Sometimes though, it feels as though they’re holding back. When one of them does let loose, like on Jamie xx’s In Colour, the results are thrilling. I hoped Sim’s album based on his own life experiences would have a similar impact.
Hideous Bastard starts with intent, with a strong opening section. Title track ‘Hideous’ is the most fully fleshed-out song on this album. Starting from intimate, barely-there instrumentation, the song expands into lush strings and the gospel-tinged vocals of Jimmy Somerville, as Sim ponders his tendency to self-loathe. It culminates with Sim powerfully stating the HIV-positive status he’s had to live with for his entire adulthood. You can feel him exorcising weighty troubles on record.
And it continues into its most musically interesting section. ‘Romance With A Memory’, ‘Sensitive Child’ and ‘Never Here’ all tantalisingly explore new musical direction for an xx album. 80s synthpop, alternative rock, post punk: this is new ground for all concerned and excitingly so. ‘Never Here’ in particular with its conventionally pounded drums and Sim building to a chorus where he cries “I was never really here” into the void feels rawer and darker than we’re used to. More of those interior feelings, like those on ‘Replica’, coming to the surface.
Despite its enjoyable nature though, Hideous Bastard ultimately sits as a minor entry in The xx universe. A Rogue One to the Return of the Jedi status of their debut (no idea if that analogy works). Because, the opening aside, it feels rather timid in its ambitions and ultimately slight as an album.
‘Unreliable Narrator’ builds promisingly and then ends before it establishes itself. ‘Saccharine’ retreads old xx ground, sounding like a lonely person’s late night confessions. I’m not sure that it does anything that the band’s early work didn’t do better. And so many of these songs come and go in 3 minutes, as if they don’t want to intrude in case you don’t like them. This is incredibly frustrating on a song like ‘GMT’ for instance, which begins with a beautiful, soulful hook and some gorgeous harmonies… but retreats to a repetitive refrain and peters out. The song’s potential is right there for all to see, but just as it threatens to blossom it shrinks again.
And the cumulative effect of these short songs across just 34 minutes is something that struggles as an album. It feels more like a series of unconnected fragments. Rather than tension and release, a series of brief ideas which finish with little lasting impression.
Jamie xx, as ever, is behind the boards. Sim led the musical direction this time, but throughout there are atypical Jamie xx flourishes that serve to further indicate what this album could have been. ‘Run The Credits’ has an airy, looped vocal sample that propels the song from truly falling into the middle of the road. Both ‘GMT’ and ‘Fruit’ use harmonies to create a spiritual effect which add to the feeling of someone finding inner peace through release. And the aforementioned earlier tracks push into alternative pop and rock territory which I’d love to hear more of.
But that’s ultimately the lasting impression. I’d love to hear more xx projects that push a bit further into the considerable talent at their disposal. Sometimes, it feels like The xx have access to an unlimited toy box of sonic riches, but only choose to play with the few most popular ones that are easiest to access. Hideous Bastard’s high points leave me excited for the upcoming Jamie and Romy solo projects. For now though, we have this one: enjoyable, but safe.
Words by Tom Burrows