After eight long years, The XX returned to New Zealand for a triumphant set at the Trusts Arena last night.
The XX are a band that exudes a quiet influence over contemporary mainstream pop music, largely thanks to their self-titled debut released nine years ago. Their fingerprints are all over some of the biggest acts of the last few years, from Lorde and Drake to The Chainsmokers.
Characterised by cold arrangements and lyrics that read like text messages, within their debut The XX crafted unassuming hushed inward looking songs intertwined with muted echoing guitars. It was music that avoided catching your eye because it was locked in a deep conversation that it did not wish to be disturbed from. They were a band that were comprised of two song writers conversant in the primal language of heartbreak and loss, whose anguished sparse vocals were complemented with spidery guitar lines that created a depth of feeling with delicate grace.
For all their minimalism and zen-like restraint, they packed a punch of drama and emotion that it cast a shadow not only over contemporary pop music, but themselves. Their sophomore effort Coexist although heartbreakingly elegant was effectively a rehash of XX but their latest offering, 2017’s I See You saw a seismic shift in the band. Rather than slyly slinking around corners, they stepped into the light with bright synth tones and an optimistic strength while managing to remain as haunting as ever.
Currently touring I See You around the world, last night was an evening of firsts for the three piece. Not only was it their first headlining show on our fair shores, it was their first performance of 2018- and what a difference nine years makes.
Watching recordings of early gigs, singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are hunched over their microphones, eyes darting around nervously, almost apologetic for being onstage. Last night when they weren’t dancing as frenetically as their instruments would let them they stood self-assuredly, flicking their hair out of their eyes with a newfound confidence, while Jamie Smith pummelled samplers and drums with abandon.
Opening with a staggering one-two punch of the iconic bass-driven Intro before diving into Crystalised, the cadence of Romy and Oliver’s vocals gave me chills that didn’t let up the entire night. Sultry yet fragile, their voices hung in the air like wood smoke and created a sense of intimacy not usually felt in such a cavernous venue. Their intensity has grown up-it’s powerful and convincing, removed of their insular angst and melancholy. They may still wear black and be endearingly awkward, but they’ve created a soulful, mature pop sound that both honours and builds on their previously groundbreaking sound.
The ninety minute set saw skeletal classics such as Infinity and Shelter work perfectly into The XX’s new understanding of tension, momentum and release more commonly associated with electronica. These songs play out as candescent lights surround the band, a fitting frame for this new, more confident trio.
Injecting their classics with new energy caused some lovely reactions from the crowd. A girl of no more than eight years old lay prostrate on the floor of the Trusts Arena for the opening bars of Shelter only to scramble up and dance with the purest look of joy on her face as it unexpectedly transformed into a disco anthem.
I was immensely pleased that the band allowed for Jaime Smith to take centre stage. Under the moniker Jamie XX his debut album In Colour was easily one of my favourite albums of 2015. Mashing up Shanks and Bigfoot’s Sweet Like Chocolate with The XX’s Dangerous was a revelation, while Chained intertwined beautifully with Jamie’s own song Loud Places and was an absolute highlight. With Rainbow lights washing over the ecstatic crowd as the song peaked and Romy’s vocals swirled around them, it still managed to feel like they were just playing that song for me.
The evening ended with Romy’s lilting refrain “Being in love with you as I am” soaring over the crowd. As they sang it back to her, the feeling was mutual. It takes a special kind of alchemy to fill a room with maximum emotion that can be felt from the back, but The XX did it spectacularly well. One of the best live shows I’ve seen in a while.
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