In 2009, Oliver Sim, Romy Madley-Croft, Jamie Smith, and Baria Qureshi released their self-titled debut album as The xx. None of them were older than 20, nor had they heard many of the bands named as their obvious influences, but their songs displayed a maturity well beyond their years. The sounds were compact and efficient, the lyrics grown-up and intimate. The ideas were fully formed and delivered succinctly, Sim and Madley-Croft forming the best 1-2 male/female vocal punch since John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Hell, even their branding looked good.
Since the release of xx, Qureshi has departed, the band has played every major festival and been voted to every best-of list on earth, and beat-maker extraordinaire Smith has established his own name (albeit the moniker Jamie xx), producing high-profile collaborations with the likes of the late Gil Scott Heron, and tongue-in-cheek remixes of artists such as Adele. In short, The xx blew the hell up, and as they prepare to release their second album Coexist in September, they are faced with the impossible task of doing anything other than greatly disappointing fans and critics.
Returning to Seattle last Wednesday for the first time in two years, The xx are still skipping grades in their musical career, this time finding themselves in a position usually reserved for bands who have been playing arenas for a decade straight: they are getting tired of their own material. Every song performed off their debut seemed to differ from its recorded original, some with only nuanced changes, others completely re-imagined. The up-tempo Halloween quirk-funk of “Crystalised,” one of the band’s more ubiquitous tunes, became a dramatic, drumless dirge, awash with heavy synth and twice its original length. The songs hiccupped, the band often holding a few extra beats to emphasize a particular transition, trying to find different, even more mature ways of saying the same things they’ve already said thousands of times before.
The set also featured a good number of songs from the upcoming Coexist, and while some new directions in the music were evident, their theme was using more to do less. Jamie xx had a new bag of tricks, beginning the show behind a real-live drumset, focusing exclusively on synths during a few tunes, battling a wall of synth drums on others, even putting on the headphones for some old-fashioned DJing, but showed nothing he couldn’t accomplish just as easily with two fingers behind his customary Akai MPC 2000 samplers. The xx bill Coexist as a ‘club record’, but many of the songs were even more disjointed and pared down than xx’s reworked offerings, without being as direct or memorable. It’s the sound of a band reaching before they need to (and maybe before they really want to).
Oddly, the show’s highlight came in the middle of the set with a slower number, the Chris Isaak/ “Wicked Game”-esque “Infinity.” Bathed in stark white light, the band worked from sultry serenade to ferocious lather by song’s end, guitarist Romy Madley-Croft crooning “I can’t give it up/ to someone else’s touch/ because I care too much” over top, then falling into the instrumental sections with just the slightest of confident head bobs. This is the mixture of simple teenage immediacy and wise-beyond-their-years content that made the world fall in love with The xx. This is the challenge that will define Coexist and their career for the next several years: their ability to hang onto that charming youthful naïveté while simultaneously showing growth as people and as artists. If they can master that balance consistently, it’s a secret the rest of us would love to know.