In Chinese Buddhist belief, those afflicted with insatiable desires and obsessions become pretas, or “hungry ghosts,” upon death; they are both a product of unfinished business, and also a symbol of tortuous, unattainable fulfillment. The myth of the preta is especially relatable to Wolf Parade fans–when the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2010, it seemed as if any thirst for new material or more shows would remain unquenched. But last Tuesday, at the beginning of a five-night residency of sold-out Bowery Ballroom gigs, some exigent souls were satiated at last. Once upon a time, Wolf Parade frontman Spencer Krug used the preta as a symbol to express his ideas about our chronically discontent generation in a song called “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts.” It was the first song off their landmark 2005 debut LP Apologies to the Queen Mary that they played Tuesday night, at their initial comeback show.
The show came just hours after Wolf Parade released their first new material in six years–a short but sweet four-song EP called EP 4 that they’ll support with a string of festival dates and more residencies in Toronto and London. If “residency” implies that there was something sloppy or unrehearsed about last week’s Bowery run, think again; Wolf Parade played as though the hiatus hadn’t happened at all, cohesively delivering their singular brand of anthemic indie rock with indefatigable gusto, all of which bodes extremely well for their victory lap return as Northside Festival headliners for a free show on Thursday, June 9.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Wolf Parade’s latest EP is so potent and satisfying, containing some of their best and most immediately infectious work. It hearkens back to the process of Wolf Parade’s birth; Queen Mary, after all, was an amalgamation of material from three early EPs made as the band was finding its footing, most especially in striking a balance between its two frontmen. The artsy abstractions of keyboardist Spencer Krug somehow never feel at odds with the visceral pop rock sensibilities of guitarist Dan Boeckner, and while both have carried on with their own independent musical projects (Krug’s include Swan Lake, Sunset Rubdown and solo work under the moniker Moonface, while Boeckner formed Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, and Operators) Wolf Parade’s magic was untouchable.
For me, Apologies To The Queen Mary was everything indie rock should aspire to, a rare jewel that could be played back-to-front without skipping any tracks. In the highways that unfurled between the suburbs and cities of the Midwest, Queen Mary rode shotgun, the record rarely leaving my car stereo. It would take willful blindness not to recognize that it’s the fan favorite across the board, and the band didn’t shy away from that reality during the Bowery shows. But what I found seriously refreshing were the confident reminders that the rest of their catalogue is studded with gems, too, like the intensely clever “What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)” or slinky synth earworm “Ghost Pressure,” both from 2010’s Expo 86. From 2008 LP At Mount Zoomer, highlights included the delightfully fevered “California Dreamer” and the stuttering merry-go-round shuffle of “Soldier’s Grin.” Then there’s the next-level freak-out of Zoomer’s closing epic, “Kissing the Beehive,” a rarity in Wolf Parade’s clearly delineated oeuvre in that Krug and Boeckner share a co-writing credit on it. On Tuesday, it acted as a searing send-off before the encore’s double Queen Mary dose of “Modern World” and “I’ll Believe in Anything.”
Surrounded by superfans in the crowd, belting out every word and fist-pumping to every riff, I realized that there are few bands who make me feel so alive. At the same time, I was that hungry ghost, desperate for another round, sneakily plotting and planning for a return to Bowery later in the week. I made it to another show just in time to see “Grounds for Divorce,” a Krug-penned song that the band long refused to play (Krug was probably not joking when he introduced it on Friday by recalling, “I once said this song was dead to me.”) On Tuesday, they’d played well but had seemed nervous and a bit rushed, by Friday they’d found both ease and a tighter focus. The proof was in that night’s encore: the “C’est la Vie Way/Floating World” medley they’d played throughout the run (and on The Colbert Show), followed by “This Heart’s On Fire,” followed by “Dinner Bells,” unspooling stoically with new verses and instrumental solos. The band was certainly not immune to improvisation; on Wednesday and Thursday, the sax player from opening act (and Future Islands offshoot) The Snails leant brassy accents to “Mr. Startup” and “We Built Another World.” Every night saw tweaks in the setlist, with a rotation of twenty-five unique songs–a reward, perhaps, for those insatiable fans who went night after night.
In “Mr. Startup,” Krug sings, “Blessed be the ones who let their blessings go.” Maybe that was the idea behind Wolf Parade’s hiatus six years ago, that pressing pause on an immensely successful project would allow them other opportunities, musical or otherwise. But it turns out that they were starving, too–to create and perform as one body, to tap into that old vein of frenzied precision and heartfelt ebullience that so few of their contemporaries are able to access to the same degree. Some compulsions die hard, but we don’t have to go through the motions just to satisfy them; Wolf Parade reminds us that sometimes, there’s good reason to stay hungry.
Wolf Parade will be performing a free outdoor show at Northside Festival on June 9 in McCarren Park. The event will be in partnership with the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn (OSA), a nonprofit dedicated to building a stronger North Brooklyn by improving 45 parks and playgrounds and getting neighbors involved in their parks.
Kindred spirits from Montreal, Land of Talk, will open the show. RSVP here.