With its melange of intricate orchestration, new wave idiosyncrasies and dramatic (but not stagy) lyrics, the Arcade Fire would seem to be the very model of the post-modern art-pop machine. But at this much-anticipated Gotham gig — the kickoff of a sold-out five-night stand at a still-functioning, liberal, Baptist church — the Montreal-bred aggregation served notice that it is capable of doing far more than putting the “arty” back into party.
The nine-piece ensemble went from zero to 60 with impressive dexterity on the opening “Keep the Car Running” — culled, as was much of the set, from the band’s much-anticipated “Neon Bible” album, which Merge releases next month. That shimmering tune built from a neo-Celtic drone to an E Street Band-styled strut with a winning blend of jolliness and efficiency.
That set the stage for much of the perf, which was marked by scads of the band’s trademark instrument-switching — primary frontman Win Butler meandered from guitar to mandolin to keyboard — and a bracing dose of newly wrought traditional rock-craft. New offerings such as “Windowsill” and the Waterboys-inflected “Antichrist Television Blues” exuded the latter vibe through choruses that edged into arena-readiness without exuding a whiff of conscious compromise.
The 90-minute perf still had plenty of sonic tension, conveyed through prickly string fillips, oddly configured Mancini-meets-Badalamenti melodies and backing vocals distorted by megaphones. That mood was enhanced whenever Regine Chassagne — who wielded accordion, hand percussion and hurdy-gurdy with equal oomph — stepped to the mic, particularly on a visceral version of the Francophone protest rant “Haiti.”
Now and again, Butler and company reached for the brass ring of portent but ended up with pretense’s booby prize — as on the lugubrious “My Body Is a Cage,” which came across as a petulant little brother to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” But given that its hometown culture is something of an exercise in polyglot anarchism, it’s fitting that the Sound of Young Montreal — as expressed in the Arcade Fire’s dada-Motown terms — would attempt to resuscitate a genre as hackneyed as elevator-pop.
And even though the band couldn’t quite manage that resurrection, the atmosphere carried enough mystical tinges — beyond the outsized neon Good Book that served as the stage backdrop — to make the supernatural seem entirely possible.
The band will perform April 28 at Coachella and then do a series of U.S. dates in May.