Review: Thrillingly enigmatic group at the height of their power
The xx, The O2, dublin
FOR all their much-professed terror of the spotlight, The xx's grandiose doom-pop has always had a stadium-friendly sweep. With last year's Coexist, their commercial profile began to catch up with their epic music.
They arrive in Europe fresh from an American tour that has seen the pallid Londoners headline the sort of outdoor venues that usually accommodate the crotch-grabbing likes of Kings of Leon.
Standing statue-like, oceans of shadow between them, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim look like mannequin dolls in the world's saddest window display. She's a side-quiffed goth with a flair for almost spectrally bleak riffs; he's a sinuous bass player with a dress sense out of Bladerunner and a dance style half malfunctioning robot, half moody teenager at a wedding.
Remarkable in many ways, if Coexist and its Mercury-winning predecessor xx have a weakness it's that they take their sweet time going anywhere. In the flesh, the same strengths and flaws are obvious: the keening 'Try' is an art-house movie score masquerading, unconvincingly, as an alterna ditty; 'Chained' is as graceful – and slow – as a liner easing out of a harbour (or, if you're paying attention to the lyrics, into an iceberg).
You fear an evening of slightly insipid worthiness, and then the xx deploy their secret weapon. Crouched in the background, keyboard player and percussionist Jamie Smith introduces contemporary pep to Sim and Madley Croft's timeless angst. The xx's beatmaster adds sharp, propulsive grooves, transforming 'Swept Away' into a blistering dance-floor weepy and giving 'Unfold' an icy trance swagger.
The loudest cheers are for their early hits. Stretched to twice its standard four minutes, 'Crystalised' blends Joy Division guitars and rave-in-a-graveyard bleeps; the lulling 'VCR' and 'Islands' are the closest the trio come to straight indie anthems.
Given the scale of the show, the production is surprisingly bare-boned. More than once Sim tells the crowd how overwhelming it feels to face a heaving arena. However, there is less adornment than when they played The Olympia at Christmas. Then, they made use of back projections and screens, performing the opening number completely in silhouette. At the O2, they follow a simpler course, relying largely on still lighting and flashing strobes.
Where the xx go from here is difficult to ascertain. They've created a formula from scratch and explored every possibility. Whatever happens next, tonight's audience can boast of seeing a thrillingly enigmatic group at the height of their powers.