Detroit punks hone their ample strengths on a third album that's pure rock 'n' roll
O2 Academy, Leeds, December 10
This is the minimalist philosophy at the heart of The xx. Most bands, if they’d made a debut that became the universally recognised album of the year in 2009 (and won a Mercury Prize in 2010), would return to music with an overblown pile of dross featuring a 30-strong orchestra and at least five guitar solos on every track. Be Here Spiritualized, if you like.
The xx’s response was to carry on doing what they do better than anyone: writing minimal, beautiful love songs set to impeccable, futuristic beats. At this point, they’re in a class of one. Continuing to plough that furrow on ‘Coexist’ made the record less of a shock to the system than 2009’s ‘The xx’, but it’s also given them room to grow at their own pace. Considered, but purposeful.
The pay-off is clear: off the back of their biggest world tour and year to date, The xx tonight are sounding even tighter, even more sharply focused than ever and, crucially, finally, looking utterly comfortable in their collective skin. They bob from side to side with their guitars! They look right into your eyes! They rock out during ‘Islands’! Yes, you read that right: The xx rock out – in their own inimitable way of course, facing each other and kind of shuffling. Bless. But the point is, they suddenly appear very confident up there.
Baring their souls in front of capacity crowds no longer seems to faze them, as it certainly appeared to in the early live days. By their less than talkative past standards, there’s even something approaching stage banter. In fact, vocalist and bassist Oliver Sim is downright chatty, to the point of feeling the need to apologise for sounding “like a broken record” after thanking us for the fifth or sixth time. He recalls their first ever gig in Leeds fondly, which was at a venue just around the corner from here. Romy is less frivolous with her sentiments, but offers a heartfelt “thank you so much Leeds” after ‘Islands’. As ever with The xx, less is more.
It’s captivating watching them wrestle their older material into new, more interesting shapes, informed by ‘Coexist’’s dancier remit. ‘Shelter’ is transformed by Jamie Smith’s frenetic house and techno beats, initially recognisable only by Romy’s vocal, before eventually dropping down to its familiar, sparser recorded arrangement and building again to a deluge of earthy, explosive sub-bass.
‘Infinity’, meanwhile, builds and builds to a deafening crescendo, every juddering snare crash from the back of the stage threatening the safety of unattended glasses on the bar. “I can’t give it up”, as whispered and unassuming a hook as you’re likely to hear in its usual form, is delivered by Romy with such conviction here it becomes almost menacing, an obsession that just won’t quit, the jilted lover who can’t stop calling.
If there was ever any danger that stepping onto the country’s biggest club stages might cause this most private of bands to retreat from the spotlight, they’re well and truly dispelled by ‘VCR’, which sees Romy and Oliver venture to the edge of the stage with their guitars and jam out the intro as close to the adoring faces in the front row as the venue’s set-up allows. For ‘Chained’, there’s even something approaching a pit in the middle of the crowd, which would have seemed inconceivable at an xx show this time two years ago.
Their live sound, hardly wispy in the first place, has also dramatically increased in stature. Every guitar line tonight is crystal clear despite being caked in their trademark reverb, and the bass and sub-bass each have their own defined, booty-shaking place in the mix and the vocals. Romy’s pipes in particular, sound effortlessly huge.
This isn’t the kind of tightness that just comes from spending hours in a practice room either. At times, the perfectly locked guitars and harmonies sound like they’d need machinery to separate them, such is the depth of the intrinsic understanding between the lifelong friends fronting this band. The way the new set is paced, with frequent variations in tempo, seems to demand it. Tonight’s audience struggle to join in, particularly on Oliver’s “ai ee ai ee ai” moment in ‘Crystalised’ when the majority of fans come in comically early.
Retaining the sense of unrivalled intimacy that made them so special in the first place, while tailoring the live show to the size of venue their immense popularity now demands, was The xx’s biggest challenge in 2012. As the dry ice surrounding the three shadowy figures evaporates to reveal a giant X, the centrepiece of their latest, still understated stage set, it’s abundantly clear that it’s one they’ve passed with flying colours.
Tomorrow, they will announce plans to play to 10,000 people just outside their native London early next year on a special, self-curated megabill. Come the third record? Better start inventing new units of measurement by which to assess them, they’re already off the conventional scale.
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