Thousands of music fans trekked to New York's Madison Square Garden on Friday night, faces turned down against the snow and biting winds of a still-emerging storm that someone decided to call Nemo. They had come to see Passion Pit, an indie rock outfit from Boston, and many expressed surprise that the arena was nearly full. Either New Yorkers are too cynical to take the advice of Mayor Mike Bloomberg or too arrogant to let some flurries get in the way of seeing a show at The Garden.
Singer Michael Angelakos led the five-piece band through an engaging and, at times, emotional show -- which was more suited to the venue than the show Passion Pit put on at last year's Governors Ball. Passion Pit's songs generally focus on the same themes: Angelakos has spoken frankly about his battles with depression and bipolar disorder, and a sense of disillusionment and other-ness predominates the group's catalogue. At their best, the band blends this despair with moments of cathartic relief (often expressed in simple, chant-ready clauses like "take a walk, take a wake, take a walk" or "higher and higher and higher"). The result is a set that's not only fun but engaging to an unnerving degree.
Though bandmates Ian Hultquist, Xander Singh, Jeff Apruzzese and Nate Donmoyer are more than capable (and Passion Pit's intricate arrangements demand a lot of them), it was clear that the night was about Angelakos. Slightly hunched, he cuts an interesting figure, with shades of Mick Jagger but overtones of Jimmy Fallon. Opening with "I'll Be Alright" and working through "The Reeling," Angelakos bounced and gyrated around the stage. But by the second half of their set, the mood had taken a serious turn.
"Seven months ago they told me I could never tour again," Angelakos said. "And now we're here on stage at Madison Square Garden ... And I'm going to keep doing it. I don't know what to say. You think these things over about what to say and when you're in this position there's nothing to say. So thank you. We'll keep doing this as long as you keep coming."
The singer's reference to his mental health problems wasn't lost on the crowd, and it made for a smart seque into "Take a Walk," a dark song that finds a simple solution (the speaker reminds himself "that times could be much worse" and takes a walk, takes a walk, takes a walk).
Swedish DJ and production duo Icona Pop opened the show with a brief but fun set. Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt are endlessly charming, and though their live show certainly has room for improvement, they rose ably to the challenge of performing on a stage that's seen acts far above Icona Pop's pay grade (especially given that they spent the past week performing for bottle service crowds at New York nightclubs like Finale). Charli XCX, who is featured on a version of their breakout hit "I Love It" did not make an appearance.
After a short intermission, French Montana's "Pop That" started blaring from the speakers, a curious introduction for Brooklyn lovebirds Matt & Kim. I first saw the couple perform on tiny cafeteria stage at UCLA, where they stunned the crowd by being shockingly ... happy. Half a decade later, that stage at UCLA has been turned into a big screen TV and -- lo and behold -- Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino still serve up some cynicism-piercing joy.
"Before this [show], I told Kim, 'Girl, from Grand and Marcy to Madison Square,'" Johnson gleefully said. Between joking that she'd take her shirt off, telling us she was wearing a thong and offering up her rear for some of Johnson's slaps, Schifino seemed bent on focusing the audience on her sexuality, but perhaps when you offer up your relationship for the entertainment of others every evening (Johnson introduced her as "my partner in music and sex," it's fun to add a bit of a spark. Their inclusion of dance breaks (courtesy of 2 Chainz and Diplo tracks) was a smart way to make sure fans remembered their opening set.
Though having Matt & Kim open for Passion Pit makes great sense on a sonic level, it's a bit jarring to go from their sweet banter to the emotional complexity of the latter's work. After half a decade of songs bent on telling us that we're all loved (from Gaga's "Born This Way" gospel/cult of personality to Katy Perry's incessant reminder that we're a "Firework"), it's nothing short of fantastic to be reminded that not only will we not always be loved, we won't even always love ourselves. That message is now being told by Angelakos, fun.'s Nate Ruess and a host of other pop singers with integrity, but it has a rich history in pop.
"Billie Jean" is a song about Michael Jackson's all-consuming paranoia. Under the easy sexual metaphors of "Like a Prayer" lies Madonna's struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with her sexuality. Motion City Soundtrack's Justin Pierre sang songs for teens about the horror of needing prescription pills to effect normalcy. Kanye West's earlier solo material saw the manic performer taking self-doubt and blending it with rap bravado to change hip-hop. James Murphy wrote three LCD Soundsystem albums about his discomfort with everything. That Passion Pit's "Gossamer" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts was a victory for reality, whether or not radio listeners understood just how dark things were in Angelakos' mind.