2017 has not been kind to Arcade Fire.
Following a much-maligned publicity campaign for its latest album, Everything Now, the record received the worst reviews of the band’s career. Dabbling in the sonic lands of flutes and disco, it marked yet another departure in sound for a group that first gained notice as an alternative rock outfit with violins and a knack for rousing choruses.
However, the Arcade Fire that performed at Oracle Arena on Oct. 21 was not a band beleaguered by negative think-pieces or. The performance they delivered was a display of the powers a tight-knit group of multi-instrumentalists can conjure when left to commune directly with their fans.
From Régine Chassagne dancing in the crowd during the bridge of “Reflektor” to lead singer Win Butler finding a similar spot amongst the audience to sing the first few verses of “Afterlife,” Arcade Fire’s show was a brilliant rejection of the fourth wall that often separates fans from artists.
This point was most obviously emphasized by the band’s choice to play in the round. Decked out like a boxing ring in the center of the floor, Arcade Fire’s had nowhere to hide. Instead, they faced the crowd at every side, with Chassagne, Butler, and company dashing around and standing atop equipment to make sure no portion of the crowd was neglected.
While the songs from Everything Now arguably garnered slightly less uproar than the tracks from their previous four albums, the energy was manic from the get-go. Using the arena’s Jumbotrons to broadcast a cowboy figure with a rainbow nightmare face that served as their hype man, the band took to the stage through the crowd, introduced like wrestlers readying for a match.
In some ways, this is exactly the narrative the media has crafted for one of the most popular contemporary rock bands in North America.
Following their Grammy win for Album of the Year for 2010’s The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has never submitted to repeated efforts to pin them down. Their proclivity for subverting expectations have been repeatedly scorned by critics who lauded their early work, although perhaps the more accurate narrative is one that would force critics like me to acknowledge how small our role has become in relation to this band’s success.
Early in the evening, Win Butler reflected on how Arcade Fire played at Bottom of the Hill the first time they toured San Francisco. He recalled that they had taken a two-week layover before restarting their tour with a gig at Great American Music Hall. Since then, the venues and crowds have steadily grown, while the band itself continues to refute categorization in favor of making what seems to make them happy.
That’s not to say that Arcade Fire’s trajectory hasn’t been consistent. Hearing new track “Signs of Life” segued into fan favorite “Rebellion (Lies)” is a reflection of how the band has changed but never truly abandoned the elements that first brought them acclaim. Butler’s desperate cries frame both songs, as the former’s funk fades into the latter’s millennial hymnal.
Instead, it proves that Arcade Fire has energy to spare trying to win over critics who pine for a repeat of Funeral but refuse to see that what lies ahead is ideally never what’s already come before. Why should Arcade Fire care what letter Everything Now was assigned on review sites across the web? The packed house at Oracle certainly didn’t need to, and headlining slots at Coachella and Outside Lands don’t indicate a group that needs more positive exposure.
I don’t think Arcade Fire is out to fuck with critics, but I do think they’re safe enough in their status not to play the games that so often bog down creative pursuits. Perhaps the path they’ve elected means fewer morning-radio appearances, fewer corporate promotional efforts, and less time spent doing what they love least. If so, isn’t that the ideal all artists strive for? Does anyone pick up a guitar and hope one day they’ll be have to explain the origins of a song to a DJ with a fondness for the flatulence sound-effect button?
Watching Chassagne dance with fans and pulse to the sounds of her bandmates on stage on Saturday night was proof that Arcade Fire knows exactly where their priorities lie. That their priorities may not align with their peers in the industry or the media that covers them is not cause for scorn, but jubilance.
It seems that Arcade Fire is in truth only worried about one thing: bombarding their fans with the full might of their live performance. Perhaps it hasn’t been such a bad 2017 for them after all.