Arcade Fire In The Throes Of Transformation
Saturday's hottest ticket in New York City was to see a band nobody's heard of. The Reflektors burned through a fan-only presale, and tickets hit the secondary market at prices high as $5,000 — a hefty sum to see any band, much less a band yet to release its first album, in Bushwick's warehousiest corridors. That's like half a year's rent for that neighborhood. But the hype was real. Based only on the "Is-this-really-happening?" disbelief stretching the faces of all the superfans and industry types in the audience, you'd think they were about to see a band that would never play a skuzzy converted depot in east Brooklyn: U2 or Bruce Springsteen, or, I don't know, Arcade Fire.
The thing about the musicians on stage was that they looked a lot like Arcade Fire. Despite his Jack White-like red shirt and white tie, the bassist's flaming red hair drew Richard Reed Parry comparisons. And they sounded like Arcade Fire, too. They even covered "Sprawl II." And that's because — (no) surprise! — The Reflektors was Arcade Fire. That cat was never really in the bag. After a little tongue-in-cheek stage banter ("We started three years ago. We were nervous to play New York because we heard you're standoffish!"), a gold-suited Win Butler and his band ran through a set of mostly unheard tracks from their upcoming album Reflektor, masquerading as a brand new band riding the promotional cycle for its first album.
But the group that played at 299 Meserole this weekend, no matter what you called them, was clearly neither a set of wide-eyed naïfs dropping their first 12", nor the band that made sneaking out of your parents house feel like toppling the Berlin Wall. The musicians were belied by more than their popularity; never mind that most in attendance — who embraced the show's "formal" dress code with thrifted tuxes, reflective masks or fratty banana suits — only got access to buying these tickets after pre-ordering Reflektor. They're also darker, and maybe a more disillusioned, too. "We're so excited to play CMJ," Butler called out sarcastically. "Thank you so much to all the industry types who offered to sign our band!"
But the plucky effrontery that has underpinned all Arcade Fire's work to date is crumbling. The band has told stories about struggling under somebody's thumb since its 2003 debut album Funeral. Songs like "Wake Up" and "Crown of Love" captured an anthemic emotional power, half hope and half rebellion, unmatched by the group's successors and copycats. The songs bloomed around refrains that felt bigger than any stadium they eventually filled. But this is less so on Reflektor. The new songs Arcade Fire played Saturday were full of new (mostly rhythmic) ideas coming to the fore and many old (mostly romantic) identifiers fading away.
Some saw that change coming when Arcade Fire announced that James Murphy, the David Bowie-obsessed former face of LCD Soundsystem and head of disco-punk label DFA, was announced as Reflektor's producer. He introduced the band at the show. Others heard it in the album's dynamic, Bowie-featuring first single, which abandoned that operatic Springsteenian populism for pop reflective of the transformations undertaken by their arena-sized predecessors the Talking Heads and U2 (there's that similarity again).
That change got its first full public display in Bushwick. Take "We Exist," for one. Four years ago an Arcade Fire song with titles that way might've sounded like "Born to Run," but when that "Hang On To Your Love"/"Your Cover's Blown" bassline crept out beneath the venue's Murphy-esque disco balls and reflective hanging polygons, it left no ambiguities about the type of music Arcade Fire is now interested in making. Fans of the group should have been safe assuming they'd get the standard fare of marching violinists yowling to the rafters, but instead were blindsided by Sade. With strings marginalized and two miscellaneous percussionists in tow, this group looked and sounded more like Stop Making Sense than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
This departure is not a totally clean break from their last work, 2010's Grammy-winning, Twitter-enraging The Suburbs. There were of course the type of joyful moments Arcade Fire is known for (see the swelling "Supersymmetry"), and brand new sounds, like the Princely backup vocals of "It's Never Over (Orpheus)" and the murky rave-up "Here Comes the Night Time." But taking the stage in the throes of a transformation didn't always work in Arcade Fire's favor. The band sometimes sounded uninspired performing new songs they'd written in their old style (like the underwhelming "Joan of Arc") or those that didn't do Butler's heady aspiration to sound like "a mash up of Studio 54 and Hatian voodoo" real justice (the chopped reggaeton of "Flashbulb Eyes"). Some old favorites even looked limp in their new duds (like the beloved "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"), while others ("Haiti") sound suddenly prophetic of where the band has touched down.
Gone is the jubilation of the Arcade Fire of days past. The crowd occasionally felt awkward inside the band's new big beat, and responded to Butler's post-encore announcement that there would be no more Reflektors, or Arcade Fire, tonight but rather a DJ set from James Murphy for those who wanted to "dance all night," with more than a smattering of boos. But the band itself is dancing toward something that'll lead it outside the sounds their old crowd formed around. Seeing that live was alone worth the price of admission.