When you see Arcade Fire live in 2017, there will be plenty of moments when you'll be sure you're watching the real deal, and not a remarkably convincing impression of Arcade Fire. For every stumble, there is a corrective, like when the band careens from the dull late period-Talking Heads imitation "Signs of Life" into the frantic staccato of "Rebellion (Lies)," and those backup vocals start poking at you with the unforgettable, accusatory chant; or when the bassy haze of "Here Comes The Night Time" explodes into a cacophony of dancers and confetti; and especially when the night closes on the ritualistic "Wake Up," those "ohh ohhs" echoing from nearly every mouth in the room.
Their exuberance is still on display this tour; so too is the gleeful showmanship, the sense that every band member is leaving a gallon of glitter-specked sweat on the table. They're still an impressive, ultra-fun live act, but they used to be an essential one—watching Arcade Fire perform at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, something didn't feel quite right. It took until the end of the main set—when the band was covered in so much fog and smoke that you could barely make them out in the jumble of lights emanating around the stage—for me to be able to pinpoint how emotionally removed I felt from the music.
For a band that literally wanders into the crowd to show how in touch it is with its fans, the Infinite Content tour feels more like an extension of their dubious promotional antics for their latest album Everything Now, which tipped the scales from precocious art project into irritating white noise. For anyone planning on seeing the band live on this tour, or anyone trying to process how they feel about Arcade Fire 2.0, below are some notes on the new set and new songs.
The band performed in the center of the room, which made for pretty great sight lines throughout the arena. (Kanye West did a similar thing on his Pablo tour last year, except he did one better, since his stage was literally moving back and forth.) The stage starts out looking like a boxing ring, ropes and all (they were introduced on the PA as "the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champions of the world"). As the night went on, the ropes disappeared, and Arcade Fire-emblazoned banners dipped up and down depending on the song.
The performance was projected onto the video screens above the stage, though that was interspersed with some hokey promotional videos and special effects that scrambled the musician' faces. It seemed telling that most of the old songs were presented with a straight-forward camera directed at the band, while the newer stuff—in particular material from Everything Now—obscured the band in graphics and gimmicks.
There were at least nine band members on stage at any given moment, sometimes bolstered by dancers or opening act The Preservation Hall Band. The core group was mostly wearing shiny red and white outfits (along with official tour merchandise, those $100 jackets aren't going to sell themselves), and wouldn't have looked out of place in a disco in the '80s Lead singer and frontman Win Butler often rushed from one side of the stage to the other to make sure different parts of the crowd got to see him.
With nine people on the rotating stage, there always seemed to be one band member who didn't have much to do, and whose sole focus was amping up the crowd, getting them participating in the clapping (dear Lord is there a lot of clapping at an Arcade Fire show). You know who especially appreciated it? The Backwards Cap Contingent, a group of identically-dressed bros decked out in baseball caps and denim (I think it was official band merch) dancing gleefully on the fringes of the floor. Nobody clapped harder than them all night.
Here's the most impressive and concerning thing about the production: the center of the stage is a rotating platform with the drums and piano on it. As a result, the drummer was constantly going around in circles as he was playing, and I was very concerned about him getting nauseous. Just watching him made me dizzy!
Throughout their career, Arcade Fire has walked a thin line between unapologetically earnest, U2/Springsteen-inspired rock music and self-consciously kooky, conceptually-banal "events." For many glorious years, they made rock music to dance to, and now they make dance music for 30 and 40-somethings who maybe think U2's Pop was underrated. They retain their maximalist approach (Every song has room for a glockenspiel! Who ever said that four percussionists were too many?!), but the balance of their sound has now tilted toward an emphasis on rhythm, rather than songwriting, over their last two records. While Reflektor was a pretty-successful synthesis of their original sound with their new groove-oriented vibe—and therefore, they could get away with wearing giant heads and coming up with silly band aliases—Everything Now was a failure (musically dull, lyrically hectoring, emotionally vacant), garnering the worst reviews of the band's career, and a slew of backlash pieces.
The divide between Arcade Fire 1.0 and 2.0 becomes even more unavoidable in concert, where the passionate tunes from the band's earlier career sit uncomfortably beside the newer ones. It feels like the group now writes monotonous grooves (see: "Chemistry") and then tries to fit slogans into them, which is the opposite of their old, emotionally-driven songwriting approach. It's as if the band was deeply shaken by Sasha Frere-Jones' 2008 New Yorker takedown piece (the one in which he argued, "If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible."), and spent the last decade trying to prove him wrong.
Also, in concert, these newer tunes start at 100 and stay there—I desperately longed for the dynamics of a classic like "Crown Of Love", songs that used to swing up and down the emotional and sonic range (tension in the verses, catharsis in the climax) like lines on an EKG. That spread to the older tunes as well at times—even with an all-time great song like "Rebellion (Lies)." The tempo, the visuals, the flashing lights—everything seemed a little bit rushed, a bit too much out of the gate. The band wants everyone to dance so badly, they keep throwing in catchy little bits and singalongs until you feel like you have a musical sugar ache.
But that doesn't mean people weren't having a great time, or singing along effusively to classics such as "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." At one point, the group asked everyone to pull out their cell phones for an excellent, understated acoustic performance of "Neon Bible." The electric guitars buzzed through the arena during "Ready To Start." Win Butler talked about the devastation of Houston and Hurricane Harvey, and put up a phone line for donations, before playing a rendition of "The Suburbs" that may have been even better than the album version. With its jaunty piano line and simmering atmospherics, it felt even more of a throwback compared to most of the flashing disco tunes.
We were treated to three Régine Chassagne-sung songs throughout the evening, "Electric Blue," "Haiti" and "Sprawl II." Live, all of them kinda sound like off-brand Blondie tunes at this point. And I must stress this: that's not a bad thing! We should all be so lucky to be breathing Debbie Harry's fumes.
Also on the plus side: I can't say enough about how much I love the song "Reflektor," one of the greatest things to come out of Arcade Fire 2.0. But here is a very modest proposal: Arcade Fire should spend some of their money on getting a hologram of David Bowie to sing those two sweet parts in the tune (you know, "down down down" and "thought you were praying to the resurrector"). They definitely have the cash, and it's worth it (also, they should bring back the giant paper mache heads...but bigger).
I really hope you don't mind being engulfed in a lot of smoke, since it's a bit crazy how much of it was used for the end of the set (even when I went to the hallway for a break, it had filled up in there). The encore starts with "We Don't Deserve Love," one of the better tunes from Everything Now; the band put up karaoke lyrics while Butler walked through the crowd and Chassagne hit wine bottles with silver spoons for percussion. Then came the joyous "Wake Up," followed by the band slowly making their exit through the crowd, with The Preservation Hall Band continuing to play the tune until it morphed into "Stand By Me," which Butler happily sang before ending the night.
After a decade of being one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Arcade Fire are in complete control of their own destinies. Reflektor could have been a one-off experiment, their idea of an Achtung Baby, but instead they found a new way to satisfy their yearnings for epic concert experiences. As Win Butler noted before playing "No Cars Go": "This is kind of our dream for this whole tour." Your mileage for effervescent disco tunes may vary.