Zachary Cole Smith has overcome a multitude of problems to make this intensely powerful album
Arcade Fire: St John’s Church, Monday, January 29
Oh come all ye faithful – Montreal’s finest deliver their second book of celestial chamber pop. Glory in excelsis!
As he trips over his lines, chuckling to cover it up, a rip appears in the veneer of his cult. At best it’s like the Pope giggling during the Lord’s Prayer, or the blood-drenched sacrificial executioner atop a Mayan temple opting against another beheading and trimming the guy’s sideburns instead. At worst he’s pulling Santa’s beard from your father’s face, exposing the weedy nerd behind The Wizard Of Oz’s booming voice or proving incontrovertibly that Tom Cruise is in fact Jesus reborn in a more compact model.
This comes at the end of a set which has toyed with the transcendental, but mostly waded through the unfamiliar (for Arcade Fire at least) territory of reality. Tonight’s apex, starting with the astronomical ‘Keep The Car Running’, touches levels of euphoria rarely seen outside Klaxons’ pituitary glands. Marching into the venue tonight, the band seemed primed for combat. Win, resembling a World War One country boy squaddie in grey shirt and braces, his brother William uniformed in quasi-fascist military garb, and the rest armed with strange weaponry for a battle like no other. ‘No Cars Go’ sees this ragtag force of anachronistic refugees leading the peasantry forces of humanity in a torch-burning revolutionary march through the streets of mortality upon death’s dark castle. Uproot the tombstones! Crush the coffins! Kill the bell, the book and the candle! Tonight, death itself was burned within the Arcade Fire.
But when a band’s best defies the grim reaper, there’s a long way to fall. Regine’s ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’ sinks quietly, while for some reason during ‘Intervention’, (based, let’s not forget, around a thick organ grind), the band fail to use the mammoth set of church pipes staring them in the face.
Tonight, it doesn’t help that many of this audience are far too close to death anyway. As ticket sales saw touts’ bank accounts wither beneath the weight of dirty money, it’s inevitable that those who can afford them are mostly wispy-haired professionals who bought ‘Funeral’ six months ago, after hearing ‘Wake Up’ on The South Bank Show, rather than the young fans whose devotion elevated the band in the first place. It means that many of this audience aren’t computer-compliant enough to have downloaded ‘Neon Bible’ from its multitude of illegal download homes, so internet illiteracy has rendered this church mute.
“You’re very polite,” remarks Win, unnerved at the hush of bourgeois reverence. Of course, none of this would matter if the band were firing on all cylinders, but frankly they’re not. Second album ‘Neon Bible’ is brilliant, but tonight some of its stand-out moments of crashing emotion, such as the massive ‘My Body Is A Cage’ or the wistful ‘Ocean Of Noise’, are lost beneath the murk of under-preparation – something which will surely have been remedied by the time their larger UK dates arrive. This is a warm-up gig, after all.
As ‘…Power Out’ fights towards its disappointing climax and the crowd shuffle back to their Volvos, there is a sense of despondency; of missed opportunity; a sense that our Gods have forsaken us. But with Arcade Fire it’s important to never lose faith.
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