Moody British band xx have something to celebrate

Members of xx (from far left) Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have a new album, I See You, due on Jan 13.
Members of xx (from far left) Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have a new album, I See You, due on Jan 13.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MARFA (Texas) • On a mid-October night, a few dozen people clustered near one end of the Lost Horse Saloon here: a small video crew, some Texas locals and tourists, including visitors from New York City .

Deer heads and skulls gazed down from the walls; a sign announced "Open Mic Night". Seated in the tiny stage area were the two singers and lyricists of the xx - Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim - while Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx), the band's programmer, keyboardist and main producer, looked on from nearby.

It was the first performance by the xx since 2014 and a Texas saloon made an unlikely comeback locale for a British band whose melancholy songs tend to conjure dark, lonely London flats or very late nights in club chill rooms.

With downcast glances, as Madley Croft plucked an acoustic guitar, the duo sang the love song Islands, from the band's self-titled 2009 debut album, and the clingy break-up song On Hold, the first single from their third album, I See You, due on Jan 13.

A stealthy return made sense for a band that grew out of whispery songs recorded at home but has gathered a worldwide following.

From the beginning, the xx bridged the do-it-yourself-just-for- yourself ethic of indie-rock, the electronic underpinnings of dance music and an intuitive sense of pop songwriting that is succinct, emotionally open and general enough to feel universal.

The xx have already sold out a week of British theatre dates in March, are booked as a headliner at Lollapalooza festivals in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, and were welcomed as guests on Saturday Night Live almost immediately after On Hold was released last November.

It was precisely the fragility and reticence of the xx, on the debut album they made as teenagers, that brought the band a rapidly expanding following - one that grew further with their more polished but still skeletal second album in 2012, Coexist. Sim and Madley Croft, playing bare-bones parts on bass and guitar backed by keyboard notes and samples from Smith, sang in smoky murmurs, like hushed dialogues or shared secrets: songs of isolation, longing and intimate tension.

In the years between albums, the band's signature sound - a moody voice in close-up over just a few instruments, with the barest hint of a dance beat - made its way into big pop hits like Hailee Steinfeld's Love Myself and the Chainsmokers' Don't Let Me Down (though the xx's habitual restraint does not extend to the choruses). Even in their absence, the xx had an impact.

Yet it is impossible for the xx to return to teenage naivete. And sticking too closely to their established ways would have made them feel like a "parody band of ourselves", Sim said.

"What makes us sound like us has been a combination of mistakes and just our personalities and what's part of us," he said. "That definitely was the case on the first one. So trying to hang onto that consciously just doesn't work." But the core of the xx - an endearing insecurity - has not disappeared. Over breakfast the morning after the show, the band admitted to renewed stage fright.

"Last night - that felt scarier than Radio City," Sim said.

Madley Croft compared the saloon performance to the awkward club shows at the 2009 CMJ Music Marathon in New York that brought the xx their first buzz in the United States. Back then, they stood stiffly by their instruments in near darkness, barely acknowledging the audience.

When the band started, the xx imposed their own strictures. To stay personal, Madley Croft and Sim would each sing only lyrics they had written themselves.

They also avoided, as they still do, specifics like place names or gendered pronouns - using you and I, not he and she - "so you can fit it into your own life and imagine yourself within it", Madley Croft said.

And even on a recording, an xx song could only have the parts that could be played onstage.

"We never set out to be a minimal band," she said. "We just couldn't play our instruments very well."

The band's self-imposed limitations gave the xx a distinct sound, full of spaces and silences that drew listeners in. It was possible to hear the songs as a couple's questions, confessions, quarrels and reconciliations, but the two singers were not romantically involved; both are gay.

"I've always been really up for being quite raw and emotional in music," Madley Croft said. "I guess that was my outlet before I could have the confidence to be like that in life."

The songs on I See You no longer insist on the austere minimalism of the band's first two albums. The sonic palette has vastly expanded; there are a few solid dance beats, some plush echoes of the Beach Boys, some resonant and ghostly synthesizer tones, even a sample of Hall & Oates in On Hold.

The frailty and tension of the xx's past catalogue remain. "Here come my insecurities," Madley Croft sings in Say Something Loving, which is far from the album's only song to mention fear. But there are also new glimmers of confidence.

At times, Sim said, the new album is "celebratory - it's not all 'Woe is me'". He added dryly: "Of course, given what we've done before, my version of celebratory is pretty different from somebody else's."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'Moody British band xx have something to celebrate'. Print Edition | Subscribe