Arcade Fire fans have been spoilt in the past. This extraordinary seven-piece band – whose roots fan out as distantly as Montreal, Texas and Haiti – have been known to end gigs by leading audiences out of the venue, playing and singing all the while. Or perhaps London is just lucky – it happened at one of their Porchester Hall gigs in 2007.
Regrettably, we remain stuck indoors on this balmy night. Hastily announced, and immediately sold out, this one-off gig introduces Arcade Fire's forthcoming third album, The Suburbs, and presages their headline set at Reading and Leeds next month. The adjacent square in front of Hackney's town hall – a space that was, frankly, begging for the best busk London might have ever seen – remains unexploited. The night, though, ends joyously enough with the "woah oh"s of "Wake Up" reverberating around the Empire's gilded walls, a sound punctuated by Win Butler – Arcade Fire's beanpole singer – bashing his guitar with a tambourine. When Butler crowd-surfs – complete with mic stand – on one of the better new songs from The Suburbs, "We Used To Wait", it is like an act of complex engineering. Dodging cameras, he levers his six-foot frame on to the waiting hands below. The song, meanwhile, recalls an age of letter-writing and deferred gratification; it is this sense of nostalgia for innocence lost that forms a big part of Arcade Fire's emotional pull. Not even a misplaced remark about the football – "I still think England have a chance," quips Butler – can dent his charm.
Despite the lack of extramural high jinks, this is by no means an off night for Arcade Fire, one of the most consistently rollicking live bands currently operational. They are rarely still – swapping instruments, shouting through loud-hailers, stamping their feet. Butler's partner, the piano-pranging, accordion-wrangling Régine Chassagne, starts out on one of two drum kits tonight, a vision of curly hair and sparkly dress recalling a less gothic Helena Bonham Carter. One of the enduring delights of this band is the spectacle of seven very different people (an extra, Marika Shaw, has joined them for this tour) creating a rhythmic din that makes all standard-issue four-pieces seem woefully understaffed.
But the unfurling of Arcade Fire's new songs does give pause for thought. That the new album is called The Suburbs will come as little surprise to followers of Chassagne and the Butler brothers (Win's multi-instrumentalist brother, William, also has a big stake in the band). Their debut album, 2004's parentheses-loving Funeral, is a suburban record in the best sense, evoking the safety and perils of North America's white picket fence sprawls. Funeral's opener, "Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)", envisioned a small snowed-in town where the grown-ups are gone and the children go feral, digging tunnels from bedroom window to bedroom window. It comes in the encore tonight, and still has the power to coax gooseflesh out of hot, damp skin.
Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, was a more dramatic affair. Concerned with rising tides and shadowy pursuers, its locus was still strangely familiar. The floodwaters weren't climbing up the sides of skyscrapers. They were threatening to spill over the sills of the windows from which the kids had crawled the album before. Set in the city, "Keep the Car Running" – another shiver-inducing highlight tonight – imagines an escape from an unspecified threat. But Butler's cityscape is a mundane place turned sinister, rather than a fearful futurist metropolis.
Calmer and more considered, The Suburbs continues riffing on this set of themes, taking a step back from the big statements of Neon Bible. With its talk of fallen bombs, "Suburban War" imagines an as yet ill-defined conflict, one that could be as simple as teenage musical tribes taking pot shots at one another. The cities, Butler sings, seem as far away as distant stars.
Kids are still getting up to the usual Butleresque things in The Suburbs – whizzing around on bikes; trying out new words like "rococo". But the threats to their well-being are more insidious than Neon Bible's apocalyptic thriller scenarios – growing up, changing, leaving (or never leaving). Tonight's stage set incorporates a 50s drive-in screen replaying shots of the band's chins in black and white.
While The Suburbs does pack a punch – the rattling "Month of May" is their punkiest few minutes yet – a few of the new songs feel a bit undynamic, at least compared to the frenetic standards of old. A hint of the bombast-free storytelling of latter-day Springsteen is creeping into their songwriting. This may become them as artists, but tonight it fails to ignite live.
Things will all be different, of course, once the album is released (2 August) and the new songs have sunk in. In the interim, Arcade Fire can still pull the London clay out from under your feet with a masterful segue from "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)" into "Rebellion (Lies)". As the audience pours out into the night, sans band, some are still chanting those "woah oh"s, feeling spoilt regardless.