The xx’s polite party in Sydney

By Anwen Crawford
The British band bring their intimate sound to an expansive venue

That The xx are, barring One Direction, the most popular group to come out of Britain in a decade remains baffling. It’s not that they’re bad. They’re just so modest, their songs minus those elements – steady backbeats, crescendos, even chords – that could more easily fill a space the size of Sydney’s Domain, where the band headlined this past weekend (January 20), after similarly sized outdoor concerts in Melbourne and Brisbane. I still turn up at an xx show expecting an audience of mournful shoe-gazers, and instead it’s a party, albeit a polite one.

The xx are now almost a year into touring their third album, I See You, which was released last January. It’s an uneven record, both in execution and mood. A few songs successfully expand the group’s core emotional territory – which is also their safety zone – of hushed sadness, taking them towards the bold (“Dangerous”) and the sensuous (“Lips”), while also incorporating horns and choral samples that act as blasts of sunlight upon their formerly darkened atmosphere. But other tracks end up stranded between The xx’s default melancholia and a vivacity that still feels forced. This awkward combination results in a live set that is clearly designed to build to a peak but doesn’t quite reach it.

The highlight arrives early, when “Dangerous” slides into another recent song, “I Dare You”. “I’ve been a romantic for so long,” sings the group’s guitarist and co-vocalist, Romy Madley Croft. “All I’ve ever heard are love songs.” The words are appraising, self-critical, but the melody pines. What’s notable about The xx is how often their love songs function as sketches for the very idea of a love song; their music, like their band name, is a prototype arriving long after the thing itself has been elsewhere fully realised. And in a curious dialectic, “I Dare You” captures the truth that a love song can precede love, so when roughly ten thousand people join in singing it with Madley Croft the collective yearning is palpable.

The voices of Madley Croft, a breathy contralto, and bassist Oliver Sim, an unassuming baritone, move in parallel lines. The two singers harmonise often, but always an octave apart, so that their voices never cross, and the emotional effect created by their harmonic interval is of a union being infinitely delayed. (Both singers are gay, and no lyric by The xx contains any gendered pronouns, adding to their music’s modular feel: the conditions in which these songs might resonate are widened, rather than circumscribed.) Their vocal doubling is given choreographic expression onstage as they take practised steps towards each other, sway a little when they meet, and then part again.

Such movement, restrained though it is, marks progress from the group’s stiff and undemonstrative early days. The xx were 20-year-olds when their 2009 debut xx put them on a steep and surprising trajectory towards success, winning them the Mercury Prize and selling over a million copies. The band play as many songs from that album as from I See You, including the still lovely “VCR”, which sounded back then like a daydream shared between the band’s members (“I think we’re superstars / You say you think we are the best thing”), and now comes across like that fantasy’s quiet fulfilment.

Less convincing are songs from their second album, Coexist (2012), which have been rearranged in order to give the group’s third member, percussionist and producer Jamie Smith (popularly known as Jamie xx), more to do. Smith is often credited as the driving creative force behind The xx, the one who brings to the group a sense of dance music’s space and dynamics, thus giving their thread-like songs a sculptural weight. That may be so, but with music this minimal the line between improvement and intrusion is very thin. Onstage, Smith stands atop a mirrored riser, his various instruments and machines arranged on a perspex platform that brings to mind an airport traffic control station combined with the concierge desk of a very hip and expensive hotel. It’s distracting, as his musical parts can be: a repeating piano break inserted into “Fiction”, or drum rolls, played with mallets, in the band’s closing song, the otherwise tremulous “Angels”.

The spaces that The xx now perform in are about as large as their sound can bear, which makes their further development both interesting and vexed. I can’t think of a band since The Cure that has managed to amass such a following with such fundamentally interior songs, but while The xx have inherited a great deal of The Cure’s melodic sense, they lack that group’s extremities of style or feeling. (The xx are as likely to write a jazz pastiche about cats as they are to don feather boas.) They are also in the unenviable position of being much copied, so that their immediately familiar sound is more than less likely to feel generic.

What The xx do have going for them is sincerity – early in their career it looked more like naivety, but they have grown into it, and it stops them from becoming blustering, or rote. “We see each and every one of you, and we love you,” Madley Croft tells the audience as the group take their leave. I’m pretty sure I heard her say the same thing, word for word, the last time that The xx played in Sydney, five years ago, but no matter. If she has it off by heart, at least she and her bandmates appear to believe it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Photo by Lisa Businovski

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