The xx, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

 

It’s nearly impossible to have let The xx pass you by. Even if you didn’t buy their Mercury-award winning debut album, you’ll have heard much of it in the sweet sonic snatches lent out by the band for television adverts and sports montages.

There was a time back in 2009 when the trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Slim and Jamie Smith was everywhere, but these highlighted moments were only flashes of the band’s brilliance, and now three years later, they are back with their new album, Coexist. So undoubtedly a few of the well-dressed (older) fans standing out among the cool kids at the back during their Shepherd’s Bush gig will have been television editors looking for their next sample.

The new album follows the almostthere template of their first, and it’s with its opening track “Angels” that they kick off, with a rattling snare, a pulsing beat and a fierce spotlight on a solitary Madley Croft.

Then the beat rises, the stage is bathed in white light and her bandmates join her for a song that is among the most positive the fragile group has ever produced. To ethereal beats, Madley Croft implores the word “love” over and over like she really fees it. Is she happy? Surely not, this is The xx after all, a band known for its sad sideways glances and plutonic dysfunction.

The crowd don’t mind though, as the booming synth beats of “Heart Skipped a Beat” and the darkness of “Chained” soon show it is business as usual. While they were away, Smith, the glue that holds the band together from his electronic drum kit and mixing table, worked with Radiohead, Adele, Drake and the late Gil Scott-Heron but that experience hasn’t changed the group.

They are still offering lights-out, nocturnal sex music for the serene. Yes, there now are hints of up-tempo house in “Sunset” but The xx haven’t become Massive Attack for the romantically dysfunctional just yet. The new “Shelter” (cold and barren) followed quickly by old favourite “VCR” towards the end of the set show they are still worth keeping the lights on to from time to time, because if you look behind the bare spaces there are surprise time signatures and layers of sadness to enjoy.

Don’t come to an xx gig looking for power-charged version of their album tracks – you’ll be disappointed. Instead, they offer pregnant pauses and warping beats to stretch each perfectly composed guitar riff and keyboard phrase out to its upmost. This is melancholic and, at its best, so very sad but that’s exactly what The xx are about, and it doesn’t look like they are set to change.

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