Wembley Arena is chilly and two-thirds full, black curtains discreetly veiling unsold seats. “Hello, Wembley!” White Lies’ singer Harry McVeigh greets the faithful anyway.
“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to say that…” Their second album Ritual lacked the impact of chart-topping debut To Lose My Life… (2009). Tonight’s booking always looked ambitious. But in this old-school, basic shed, more honest than the glitzy façade and pile-‘em-high reality of its rival the 02 Arena, White Lies put on a celebratory rock show which ends in defiant triumph.
It still seems odd that a generation now reveres 1980s synth-pop and rock as much as Oasis do The Beatles (or Echo & the Bunnymen The Doors). Talking Heads are the only band of the era White Lies admit to admiring (though the Bunnymen are on tonight’s intro tape). But the period’s doomy melodrama is in their DNA, the ambition denoted by the time’s critical term “the Big Music” powering every chorus. Despite the Joy Division comparisons his baritone attracts, McVeigh is more Jim Kerr than Ian Curtis. White Lies’ songs, often cloyingly pompous on their debut record especially, are revealed live as affirmations in the face of wracked romance and death.
“There’s a part of me that still believes that my soul will soar above the trees,” McVeigh sings on “To Lose My Life”, and that is the sensation White Lies keep reaching for. When real degradation is glimpsed, on the prostitute narrative “”Holy Ghost”, the lyrical reaction is disgust, not decadent wallowing. “Is Love”’s slow, stacatto verses and gleaming rush of a chorus, decorated with digitally-diced wah-wah guitar, are typical of music made from a limited, repetitive palette, but put across with rough, rousing force.
When the band finally slow for “Come Down”, a depressive’s ballad about self-loathing too deep to allow love, dry ice flows from the stage in 1980s pastiche. It allows a brief pause in the momentum, some light and shade, but mostly just punctures the mood. It’s followed by their biggest hit, called “Death”, of course. It sums them up with its perversely manic uplift, triggering every swinging spotlight and firework this budget-conscious arena show allows. White Lies’ tug between self-deprecation and majesty has people dancing in the aisles by the end. The fans who are here are still fervently with them.