OK, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Arcade Fire are never going to top their peerless debut Funeral, a fact made abundantly clear by the new songs they preview tonight. None are awful as such, except perhaps the tepid honky-tonk of ‘The Suburbs’, but there’s a tendency to mid-paced indie balladry that lacks the idiosyncratic magic of their early material. Gone are the swelling strings, the cathartic crescendos, their powerfully ramshackle sense of drama, and with them goes much of what made them such critical darlings in the first place.
Of course, it’s not particularly surprising they’ve gone in this direction. Their decent, if overblown sophomore effort Neon Bible was derided in some quarters for overdoing the bombast, so a stripped-down follow up was always on the cards. There are some intriguing moments- the coda to the broodingly baroque ‘Rococo’, the unexpectedly straightforward rock ‘n roll assault of ‘Month of May’- but even the band seem to tacitly agree the new stuff lacks the pulling power of the classics, as evidenced by the appearance of no less than seven songs from Funeral tonight. They’re still passionate performers, but like their music, the electrifying, punk-like vitality of old has given way to a maturer, more reserved attitude. No longer do we have Richard Reed Parry bleeding over his keyboard due to prior overzealous motorbike-helmet/drumstick antics; nor do we have Will Butler attempting to clamber up any available scenery during traditional set centrepiece ‘Rebellion (Lies)’. Win Butler’s brief crowd-surf during synth-led new single ‘We Used To Wait’ was the exception rather than the rule, and although this more sedate style of show fits in with the slower, more thoughtful nature of their new material, it lacks the life-affirming rapturousness of old.
But any and all criticisms wither away in the face of an encore of such sublime brilliance; I’m not sure anything I say could do it justice. An unplanned rendition of rarely-performed favourite ‘Crown Of Love’, a scintillating ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ and of course the most epic of closers, ‘Wake Up’ within the space of fifteen minutes. Arms were held aloft, the impassioned caterwauling of the crowd almost drowned out the band, and finally, we got a reminder that at their best, there’s no live act on Earth that can touch them.