From The Cheap Seats: Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden (9/12/2017)

Arcade Fire’s new album, Everything Now, is a mess. The band became so concerned with satire and social lecturing that they forgot to write good songs. These problems extended their way into their concert at Madison Square Garden.

Up until this year, the idea of a disappointing Arcade Fire show was a foreign concept. From their earliest shows through world-conquering headline gigs, their sets felt like a religious experience. They played with endless passion and enthusiasm that bolstered a killer song catalog. For this year’s Infinite Content tour though? There were several momentum-killing moments, all centered around tracks from the new album. Even some decent visuals and an in-the-round stage couldn’t make them work. 
Some examples? How about the pre-concert intro, where a digital huckster advertised Arcade Fire shirts and fidget spinners? Cause there’s too much consumerism! Get it?! Of course, the band did sell shirts and fidget spinners in the lobby, so the joke doesn’t work. It’s a case of having your cake, eating it too and hoping no one notices.
The concert started with the sleek disco of the title track. It’s a great song and an excellent kick-off that got everyone up and dancing. But things ground to a halt almost immediately with the “Rapture”-aping “Signs of Life.” No one wants to hear Win Butler rap about “those cool kids stuck in the past,” especially when the song is a 40-year throwback! In the stands, many people sat down or played with their phones. On the second song! Not a great sign. And to make matters worse, they go from this lame track into “Rebellion (Lies)” from their debut, Funeral. Considered one of Arcade Fire’s greatest compositions, its power was zapped by what came before.
That’s pretty much how the show played out. The boring faux-punk of “Infinite Content” and synth-chug of “Creature Comfort” deflated what should have been the thrilling main set closer of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” Even on the good songs of Everything Now, the band blew it. The funk-bass of “Put Your Money on Me” was ruined by overwrought videos of dollar bills and fake infomercials. It wasn’t clever, just distracting.
But when the new songs and pompous videos fell to the wayside, Arcade Fire proved that their live show could still reach glorious heights. “No Cars Go” had everyone in MSG standing and shouting along. For the quiet “Neon Bible,” the lights dimmed and the band asked everyone to use their phone lights to brighten the arena. Then there was the hit parade stretch from “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” through “Afterlife.” For those seven songs, which ran chronologically, everything was perfect. People danced their way through “Ready to Start” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” We all cheered when David Bowie appeared on the screen for his lines in “Reflektor.” And we felt the emotional resonance of the tragic, spiritual “Afterlife.”
The only new song that matched the power of Arcade Fire’s older material was “We Don’t Deserve Love.” The slow-burning track started the encore with Butler walking through the crowd. He made his way to the stage as the song’s wavering synths built into a marching chorus. From there, Arcade Fire went into an acoustic, string-laden reprise of “Everything Now,” before bursting into “Wake Up.” No matter what flaws there were in the show, this one song united everyone in the venue. Whether you loved or hated the new album, were a casual fan or a hardcore obsessive, you let out a cathartic scream for its wordless chorus. As the show ended, the band walked onto the arena floor, joined by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to play the song again. They wound up making their way down into the subway, still playing!
For all the missteps found on the Infinite Content tour, Arcade Fire is still a band that can create moments of pure, joyous magic. It used to be that each new album added to that experience, rather than diluting it. But Everything Now is the first real struggle for a band that moved from success to success. I doubt we’ll see much of this album next time around. Hopefully, at that time, the group will innovate while also playing to their strengths. Don’t force feed the message. If the music’s there, the rest will come.