I See You, the third album by the xx, begins with a fanfare: five triumphant notes played by a small chorus of brass instruments. It is also a statement of intent, a signal that the band’s mission is reinvention. Here, the xx encounters the fear which comes from realizing your natural creative inclinations have hardened into a style and defined you. This is the great peril of any artist who finds immediate success: that people will become so attached to your first impulses and expressions that you will forever be trapped by them.

The band, comprised of singers and songwriters Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim and producer Jamie Smith, has reason to fear this sort of confinement. Its 2009 self-titled debut album left an imprint on popular music by interpreting sensations that reside in the backbone of pop music with a quiet confidence. The songs’ lyrics concern love and loss, but as recorded, the songs are about the act of intimacy, the sort of thing you can only understand by experiencing music as a physical entity. Yet the songs don’t conflate physicality with volume. Instead, they use a quiet minimalism to highlight the spaces between sounds. Those spaces create a synesthesia, echoing the stimulation one feels just before and after physical intimacy. That combination of anticipation and memory makes intimacy more than a matter of physical contact; it connects love with lust.

This sensitivity, to arousal and memory, to silence and texture, is the xx’s gift. For all its virtues—immediacy, accessibility, scale—pop music is not built for understatement. The xx introduced a new way to experience old ideas. The band made the absence of sound as exciting as its presence. Popular artists, including Drake, Rihanna, and Coldplay, recognized the brilliance in the xx’s methods and folded them into their own, either sampling or imitating the band. Widespread exposure created an identity for the band built from associations with certain stylistic markers, including reverb, hushed vocals, and minor-key melodies. After a single album, the xx became more than a band: It became a style.

The band’s second album, 2012’s Coexist, built songs around the thing that gave its predecessor its magnetism and allure: sonic space. The sounds were softer and less frequent, but this was not just a doubling down on the first album’s success, it was an exploration, an attempt to remove everything but a song’s most essential parts. It was a masterful exercise in precision and restraint, but it carried a sense of familiarity.

After touring the album, the band separated to focus on solo projects. While Sim modeled for Dior Homme and Madley Croft participated in songwriting sessions for pop stars, Smith released a solo album, In Colour, which featured contributions from his bandmates. His songs live in the same emotional architecture as those he’s composed with Sim and Madley Croft, but are faster, louder, denser, and more percussive. This was a canny move, taking inward-facing music and turning it outward, and the band united around this strategy when it came time to record its third album.

Undercurrents of anxiety emerge when Sim, Madley Croft, and Smith talk about Coexist (“There was a lot of thinking of: ‘What do people like about us? What have people picked up on? What makes us us?’ We really tried to cling to that, and it was quite limiting,” Sim told the New York Times), which come from the realization—perhaps heightened by their time apart—that the xx has become a brand, a business proposition that faced a critical juncture after Coexist. This is the anxiety any band feels when it achieves success beyond its original ambitions. It’s a rare and precious thing that can disappear as quickly as it arrives, and that reality is bound to weigh on anyone who encounters that burden.

On I See You, that pressure shows, resulting in songs that betray an awareness of positioning—a desire to reshape the arc of the band’s short history. The xx were once a study in chemistry: the chemistry of voices, attitudes, aesthetic preferences. But when change becomes the priority, the focus shifts toward negation; the emphasis is to be different than before, to compose and combine sounds in such a way that they will be recognized as an evolution. You can lose something in the music in that process; the sounds may be different, but are they the right sounds?

The answer is not clear. Acting out a fear of stasis, the album becomes a document of progress that sometimes loses the emotional and tactile clarity of xx and Coexist. Hushes and pockets of space fall away and there is a strain to fill those gaps and move toward a musical extroversion. The album, then, becomes stuck in a middle ground between past and future.

This is most apparent on 'Dangerous'.The song nudges Sim and Madley Croft—two singers most comfortable in space and quiet—to sing above a din of trumpets, digital scratches, and a thumping dance beat. Challenged by volume, Sim and Madley Croft lose the shading and ambiguity that put a spark in their previous collaborations. There is desperation in the song, but the wrong kind, the kind that views risk as an equation that can be solved, a thing that can only be recognized through contrast.

Still, there is a sturdiness to the xx. The band’s innate talents for melody and texture, even when expressed in the wrong proportions, persist. 'On Hold', the album’s first single, angles toward the right kind of evolution, opening space for another voice: a pitch-shifted sample of the Hall & Oates song 'I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)'. The sample layers the voices of Daryl Hall and John Oates and plays them simultaneously, creating a different rhythm—hurried and frantic—than the one between Sim and Madley Croft. Rather than force the two beyond their strengths, Smith looks outside the band for a new dimension.

This is where the xx’s best hope for reinvention lies: not in obstruction, but harmony, in sounds and voices that align with the band’s careful chemistry. The challenge, then, is a little like that which runs through its songs: the challenge of building trust and intimacy with someone else, without losing yourself.