Live: Bewitching Hour. The xx, Battersea Arts Centre.

"This has been our first week of shows for two years", says Oliver Sim as he glances over coyly at the packed Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre, "so you might have to bear with us." Since 2010, The xx have cemented themselves in the public consciousness as a force to be reckoned with. To say they’ve exploded would be an understatement, as performances at Coachella and Bonnaroo and a Mercury Prize win have demonstrated. But that was two years ago and since then, the musical landscape has shifted quite seismically. The group’s distinctive brand of dreamy R&B is now widespread, with countless imitators trying to recreate the perfection of the band’s debut. For The xx, tonight’s task is a daunting one: how do you improve on the album that changed everything?

Battersea Arts Centre is closer to a church hall than to the nearby Brixton Academy, with the imposing pipes of an organ towering above the stage. You may think the room were set up for a battle of the bands or community event were it not for two black cubes, each emblazoned with a single white 'X'. Even the audience tonight is out of the ordinary. After months of radio silence, The xx suddenly returned at the beginning of May with a unique proposition: three London gigs; minuscule venues. But there’s a catch: the tickets are only available via lottery allocation. Tonight's result is a venue filled with die-hard fans, all clamourous and choking on the very same inquisition: what would two years of touring and experimentation bring? The answer is nothing short of stupendous.

After the muffled vocals of opening act 2:54, Romy Madley Croft’s delicate tones cut through the hall like a glistening knife. Beginning with a new song may seem a bold move although as the show wears on, it becomes clear that the show is as much about showcasing new material as it is about revisiting the old. The opener, untitled as with all new stuff thus far, aches with yearning as Romy’s repeated insistence of "being as in love with you as I am" is melded with languid shoegaze guitars, showing us a completely new side to the group. Let’s call it Beach House-wave slow jamz or something.

It would be impossible to discuss The xx of 2012 however without mentioning the group’s breakout star: Jamie xx’s unique brand of post-dubstep has dominated the past year, so much so that Drake borrowed his instrumentals from I'll Take Care Of You for a chart-bothering collaboration with Rihanna. Standing behind the mixing decks, he cuts a solitary figure yet his presence goes far from unnoticed. All the new tracks are influenced in some way or other by Jamie’s sonic experiments – the steel drums on one song are clear descendants of Far Nearer's West Indian stylings, while the strobing house beats of another reflect the dancier moments of We're New Here. Atop these nuances, Romy and Oliver's plaintive voices point to a more soulful direction; one that’s even more aligned with a great pop sensibility. Aaliyah has often been cited as a major influence, but only now does this truly shine through. Indeed if their second album is anywhere near as accomplished, haunting and involving as these few tracks then The xx are sure to enthrall us for the next two years, just as they’ve bewitched us for the last.

It is the old tracks, however, that truly show how much The xx have evolved as a group: Crystalised is stripped of its characteristic bassline, leaving the two vocalists to carry the song until suddenly, unexpectedly, the hall is filled with expansive synths as the understated original becomes a melancholic floorfiller. The reworked version of Basic Space incorporates a meaty synth line and insistent percussion, whilst Infinity leaves the crowd breathless as it is in turn transformed into a raw and sensual slow-burner. As the band return for their encore, they could perform a Slipknot medley and we would remain captivated. Fortunately, their election is infinitely more interesting: in playing the opening and closing tracks of their eponymous debut (Intro and Stars), The xx appear to be bidding farewell to their first effort. And tonight couldn't have proven a more fitting goodbye...

Noah Jackson.