Angus Sharpe is one of the lucky few in attendance at Arcade Fire’s recent album preview shows, where quirky dress code comes as mandatory. But what hints does the show give about the band’s future direction?
“Well I’ve never really been much of fan, but then I saw them live and, yeah, wow.” I’ve now heard an approximation of this verdict on Arcade Fire from four different friends. The sextet’s reputation for giving their live audience a celestial experience stretches back to 2005, when they were playing churches dressed as funeral goers. Their last tour, a 13-month hop around the world’s largest venues, finished over two years ago when, at a mammoth free show in the centre of their native Montreal, hundreds of giant, strobing spheres were dropped into the crowd. Yeah, wow. But where do you go after that?
Well, most noticeably they have shifted toward a more electronic sound and adopted a fresh persona, The Reflektors. And, as is now customary for big bands releasing new albums, the next step is a few preview shows at Camden’s Roundhouse.
Everything about these gigs augments the sense of occasion. It’s a dark evening and Chalk Farm Road is lined with people queuing to collect tickets purchased only 11 days ago, covered in the formal garb and facepaint prescribed by tonight’s official dress code. It’s only 6:30pm on a Monday – many of these guys must have taken their tuxedos and frocks to work. Arcade Fire fans are game.
On entering, their effort is immediately reciprocated with plenty of extracurricular trimmings. A smiley mariachi band plays pop covers for the cloakroom crowd – it seems Girls Aloud were fools for omitting trumpets from ‘Love Machine’. Happy people distribute individually painted masks to ticket holders filtering through to the main hall, about which friendly folk wander sporting the oversize, papier-mâché heads seen on the band in recent promotional material.
Only a plain black sheet conceals the stage. After a sensible delay, dimming house lights and a brief, synthetic crackle draws forward all our glittering faces. The anticipation, long and short term potential energy, turns kinetic and flies toward the stage as the curtain drops in unison with the disco beat of title track, opener and lead single from new album, Reflektor.
It’s a perfectly orchestrated entrance but the band, so renowned for their toddler tantrum energy and emotional heft, look slightly inhibited by the more rotary groove of this new sound. It must be difficult to relax after ten years of bouncing up and down.
It’s probably best for everyone then, both on stage and off, to spend a few minutes with the ever-spectacular comfort blanket of ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’, an “Arcade Fire” song as Win Butler, The Reflektors frontman, puts it.
Much has been made of the new record’s shift in genre but, like 2010’s The Suburbs, Reflektor’s biggest curve ball is its opening pitch and title track. ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, ‘Afterlife’ and ‘We Exist’ all succeed live for the same reasons any Arcade Fire song ever has, stirring pop crescendos and cathartic group vocals.
Arcade Fire have always maintained some discomfort with their growing status in the music industry. They don’t much like making videos or doing promotions, and are often precious of their outsider status. Win Butler, for whom the crown of rock royalty is particularly itchy, thanks us that there are “enough weirdos” still out there to send Reflektor to the top of the US and UK charts. You can call yourself whatever you want, but last time Arcade Fire were in London, they played to the picnicking masses in Hyde Park. One wonders how many of the 50,000 in attendance were self-identified ‘weirdos’?
The choice between being a smug weirdo and just another sheep in the herd is not a tasty one.
But Reflektor is full of weary observations about being a pop star and slanted glances at those ‘normal people’ over there. On several occasions tonight, they get out the irony: Butler singing “what if the camera really do take your soul?” on the fantastic ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ while papping photos of worshippers in the front row; or playing a limp parody of ‘Wake Up’, the Arcade Fire song which ‘normals’ are most likely to know. They even take the time to cover ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ by Devo, the 70s New Wavers who formed to mock the herd mentality of American society. All this leaves me desperate to dance to the band I’ve paid to see, but feeling too self-conscious to freely do so. The choice between being a smug weirdo and just another sheep in the herd is not a tasty one.
Arcade Fire have two options. They can become The Reflektors, follow up the album’s thematic statement and make a genuine bolt back to the fringes, packing smaller venues with like-minded misfits. Or they can get over it, take pleasure in their undeniable popularity and work out how to play ‘Reflektor’ at Glastonbury. Mostly, these songs will work both ways. Tonight’s main set closes with ‘Here Comes the Night Time’. Undoubtedly their most intriguing new track, and already a fan favourite, it could just as effectively fit inside a basement as fill a field. But it’s either, not both.