NEW YORK, NY- Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater was cloaked in darkness as the fog machines kicked in. The only source of light was the eerie red gleam emanating from the screen behind the stage and the soft glow of neon bracelets worn by front-row fans. When the members of Bastille strode out, the silhouettes of their angular forms recalled shadow puppetry — an appropriately proto-cinematic feel for the new album, Doom Days.
The set recalled a sitting room unstuck in time — a digital countdown clock loomed above us, a large “window” overlooked city streets at night, and a mock-up of a staticky CRT television stood stage left. Frontman Dan Smith started with “Quarter Past Midnight” (the lead song on the new album) seated in front of that TV for a verse before exploding into motion, running up to a circular platform situated center stage. At the lines keep on the running, running through a red light, like we’re trying to burn the night away — he took a running start to leap back down onto the stage. The moment looked like a panel out of a graphic novel, our superhero suspended in midair, framed by a bright LED screen with lyrics flashing boldly: RESTLESS, GOOD TIMES, it advertised.
But this is 2019, and the neon lights can’t quite penetrate a certain inner darkness — these restless good times are not entirely that. “Quarter Past Midnight” situates us in the back of an Uber, singing along to Joy Division, heckling the driver to run that red light — in the music video, we cut from a dance club to a tiled bathroom, our protagonist emerging from an icy bath, disoriented. We never knew what we had, the song goes — the electro-rock beat is euphoric as we hurtle not toward a triumphant coda but into the unknown, while the anthemic turns into the imploring: Help me piece it all together, darling, before it falls apart.
The show proceeded as a play in three parts, taking us from midnight til daybreak (a novelistic arc reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark). In Act 1, we’re “Still Avoiding Tomorrow,” caught up in blissful escapism of upbeat songs. With his lean physique, shaved head, and fervent vocal delivery, Smith embodied the role of an emissary of the end days, leading a final charge. The crowd energy was unparalleled–the audience bounced up and down so enthusiastically that the floor was shaking hard every single minute we were in the photo pit.
Doom Days shows Bastille’s maturity as a band, shaking off constraints of any expectations to craft anodyne, broad-appeal pop (the type that’s easy on the ears but light on content). Instead, the British outfit digs deep to explore what it means to come of age in troubled times. Bastille’s gift here is in making us want to dance at the threshold of the apocalypse. The scenes that Smith narrates are painted with a broad sonic palette courtesy of bandmates Kyle Simmons, Will Farquarson, Chris Wood, and touring member Charlie Barnes. There’s the galloping “Quarter Past Midnight,” and the house-influenced “Another Place.” The choir backing in “Joy” lifts the song to celestial heights. And of course there’s megahit “Happier,” a collaboration with American producer/DJ Marshmello (it reached number 2 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart).
Act 1 featured a cinematic take on “Two Evils,” with Smith climbing a ladder to sing against a blood-red moon, accompanied by a stark, reverb-laden guitar. Daniel Armbruster, frontman of synth-pop band Joywave, shared vocals on “Bad Decisions” — the crowd’s clamoring made it a bit hard to hear at times, prompting Smith to hold his mic out into the audience, allowing us to take over on the refrain. Act 1 closed with “Flaws,” for which Smith strode out into the crowd before traversing the stands, a spotlight illuminating him, the enthralled audience singing along in answer to the song’s query: There’s a hole in my soul — can you fill it?
Act 2 of the show drew us into “Those Nights,” slowing down the tempo to reckon with the detritus of our actions. New York (by way of Melbourne)’s Dawn of MAY joined Smith for a haunting “World Gone Mad” and a beautiful yearning rendition of “4AM,” which saw the two vocalists perched side-by-side on a couch, delivering immaculate harmonies. That was one of the most magical moments of the night, with Smith testing the upper register of his vocals, allowing that to take center stage, anchored by a simple electric guitar lead, revealing an aching vulnerability beneath the pop polish and rock swagger.
As the night continued, Smith ventured into current affairs, preparing us for the title track of the new album. We booed at Brexit, whooped and clapped at the shout-out to youth climate activist Greta Thunberg who had just delivered her impassioned speech to the UN. The loudest cheer of all, though, came when Smith uttered the word “impeachment” — the crowd of millennials and Gen Z-ers seemed poised to take the reins of their political future.
“Doom Days” is the theme song of 2019 — Smith’s vividly detailed, trap-inflected spitfire delivery conveys a real menace. Apart from a classic literature reference (a nod to Oscar Wilde), the references are urgently of-the-moment. These smart, biting lines hit home, the words flashing bright above the stage like headlines staring at us unblinkingly: think I’m addicted to my phone, my scrolling horror show, I’m live-streaming the final days of Rome … one tab is pornographic, everybody’s at it, no surprise, we’re so easily bored … let’s pick the truth we believe in, like a bad religion. But despite these cataclysmic lines, we still have hope — the anxious synth chimes fade out, the beat eases, a female vocal line flits in, and our narrator chooses to put down his phone and steps into the night alongside this person — one hopes, a partner in The Resistance.
This is no time for anemic radio-friendly pop — in the long shadow cast by our political leadership and the climate crisis, the sense of powerlessness in the onslaught of the madness, what is there to do? In Doom Days, Bastille provides both response and antidote — this is not ok, but we can do something about it.
And then we arrived at Act 3: “The Morning Doesn’t Reach Us” — a line drawn from “Nocturnal Creatures.” Smith described the breakbeat, 90s sound as invoking “that feeling that you can outwit the sunrise” — but there’s a self-knowing depth beneath the soaring refrain. We may be drawn to the flame, but we’ve only got ourselves to blame, and — perhaps most importantly — we can choose to allow the morning to reach us.
Bastille closed the night with their 2013 breakthrough, “Pompeii,” a perfect encapsulation of their aesthetic — carving out a swath of joy and beauty amidst the chaos. The song refers, of course, to the ancient Roman city buried under volcanic ash — a reference updated, at the show, with projections of nuclear fallout warning signs and a video of a mushroom cloud. “Are you ready?” Smith queried as 5,000 pairs of arms were thrown skyward. We jumped and sang along: And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?