Three songs into Bastille’s triumphant Pukkelpop main stage slot, Dan Smith pays tribute to those who lost their lives in Thursday’s terror attack that killed 13 people in a tourist area of Barcelona.
Introducing ‘Warmth’, he says: “This next song is about watching the news and feeling very saddened and confused about everything. And trying to figure out to respond to it. And this weekend has been another very sad time and our loves goes out to everybody in Barcelona at the moment.”
It’s a moment that’s typical of a politically-charged set. Befitting of their (quasi) state-of-the-nation second album ‘Wild World’ – which partly sees them confronting post-truth politics and the anxiety of 24-hour rolling news coverage – they perform in front of a fake news channel which churns out dystopian 1984-style messages, intercut with real footage of protests. Occasionally, a wild-eyed Theresa May lookalike looms in the background in a party-political broadcast, holding up a manifesto entitled (what else?) ‘Strong and Stable’. It underlines the fact we’re living in a woke-pop age where even the most mainstream acts are expected to come with a side-order of Owen Jones’ columns.
Whether the sprawling airstrip of Europeans will get some of the more UK-specific references doesn’t really matter, as they deliver a festival-pleasing masterclass. A quintessential everyman prone to winning self-deprecation (“I’m the most embarrassingly bad dancer,” he claims at one point), Smith works extra-hard at winning over a crowd, prowling through the throng during ‘Flaws’. He sits on the lip of the stage to tremulously emote ‘Two Evils’ – a man in the mirror lament – while seemingly choking back tears.
It also helps that Bastille’s sound is as omnipresent as the news cycle they bemoan: there’s nothing more potent than pop that’s actually popular. Opening with ‘Send Them Off!’, and augmented by a full brass section, they rattle through wide-screen hook-heavy electro bangers with choruses best appreciated in a communal muddy field when alcohol has disabled your critical firewall. As shit is lost to closer ‘In The Night’ – their Corona/Snap! mash-up – people have taken Smith’s advice that “although the world’s messy, let’s dance and try to forget” as a defiant call to arms(-in-the-air).
Earlier in the day, Tove Lo performs a mid-afternoon set of precision-tooled Scandinavian pop – which locate the euphoric euphoric/melancholic sweet-spot – in a tent, in front of her logo designed as a vagina. During ‘Talking Body’, as has become a tradition, she pulls her Britney Spears top up to flash her nipples. Most in the audience cheer; a smattering suddenly suffer a fit of the Victorian vapours. When you consider that most indie fans could probably pick Mac DeMarco’s penis out of a police line-up, it perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy she’s on a mission against. As she crescendos with her breakthrough hit ‘Habits (Stay High)’, she’s met with a sea of swaying hands.
Even more fearless is Mike Hadreas – aka Perfume Genius – who vogues around the stage with the sass of 12 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race rolled into one, while baring his soul to a modest crowd that includes Bastille’s Dan. With a three-piece band (his life-partner Alan Wyffels is on keyboards) capable of mustering up a deafening sound akin to aural-fracking, it’s bracing, confrontational, life-affirming and idiosyncratic. By the time he reaches the thrilling ‘Queen’ – which closes the set – it feels like a full-blown exorcism of his demons.
One of the biggest draws is The Flaming Lips mid-evening set. People couldn’t be crammed closer together in the Marquee tent without Liquid Silk lube being employed. In a natty red suit and eye-patch, Wayne Coyne opens with ‘Race For The Prize’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt 1’, amid a blizzard of confetti, as we’re transported to a psychedelic children’s birthday party. He zorbs across the crowd while covering David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, before signing off with a transcendent version of ‘Do You Realize??’. Balloons spell out ‘Fuck Yeah Pukkelpop’ – a sentiment that blanket covers the whole day.