Never mind that it was Saturday night instead of Sunday morning, and that the bodies in the room were more interested in writhing than worshipping: The Rapture wanted to have church. Standing onstage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and staring off into the distance, frontman Luke Jenner, still as wiry and boyish at 36 as he was in his late 20s, crooned, "Your love is higher, shining from above," as his band put forth a steady, muscular disco rhythm behind him. Leave it to a dance musician to discover the potency of spiritual ecstasy.
It's been five years since the Rapture, onetime scions of the DFA scene, last played an official show -- a considerable stretch in real-time and virtually eons in pop music -- and, as one would expect, a few things have changed. The promised New York Rock Revolution of 2001 never quite happened, and the coterie of bands to which the Rapture belonged have either scaled down or given up. Their onetime producer and mentor, James Murphy, formed and dissolved a band of his own - and a public that once separated rock and techno like drunk, punchy uncles at a wedding has developed a billion different genre-neutral subscenes.
The Rapture have changed, too. They've lost charmingly rambunctious bassist Mattie Safer and shed some of the weight of being the Next Big Thing. Their songs, once throbbing and physical, have shifted their concerns to a decidedly higher plane. The band's upcoming third record, the beatific In the Grace of Your Love, pushes past the jittery post-punk and dancefloor hedonism that defined their early work toward a kind of day-glo Gospel: Its songs burst with ecstatic "hallelujahs" and pivot on references to grace and a "loving Spirit," but, like the best spiritual music, they contain enough contradiction to keep their exact meaning elusive.
It was that dichotomy between past and present, flesh and spirit, that was most deeply felt over the course of their sweaty, triumphant hometown return performance.Opening with a riveting, reverent run through the September album's title track, the group leavened numbers of startling physicality with those of an almost unearthly transcendence. Unsurprisingly, it was the older material that fared best.
"Whoo! Alright Yeah...Uh Huh" built to a frenzy, its loping, liquid bass cut with Jenner's icy shards of guitar. "Echoes" felt breathless, drummer Vito Roccoforte piloting its rollicking rollercoaster rhythm head-on into final pile-of-noise no-wave skronk freakout. And "House of Jealous Lovers," which arrived roughly midway through the night, was greeted like a homecoming hero, all hands high in celebration, all bodies twitching and twisting in perfect time.
The songs may be nearing a decade in age, but they've lost none of their blunt force -- they still deliver taut, throbbing grooves that weight dance music's hurtling freneticism with rock's primal wallop.
But though it wasn't as immediately rewarding, there was something strange and beguiling about the group's newer material. Where the older songs concentrated on sustaining a worried groove, the numbers from Grace instead lifted to a kind of angelic glide, working their magic through controlled dynamics rather than repeated, sustained attack. There were frequent, long passages of wordless vocalizing from Jenner that suggested both American Gospel and Indian qawwali. In "Sail Away," he elongated syllables until they took on a nearly mantra-like gravity.
Jenner is hardly an electrifying frontman -- he prefers a haunted stare to sweeping gesture -- but he seemed game on Saturday, engage in a few jubilant gestures, raising his arms to call for more applause and bobbing blissfully by the drum riser during the many extended instrumentals. The new songs may be lyrically spare, but they feel both strangely trenchant and distinctly his.
Late in the set they played "How Deep is your Love," their lithe, shimmering new single. Like most of the songs on Grace, it is cool and controlled, and its lyrics are both simple and direct: "All the love that you've given me/ it helps me see what's right," Jenner crooned as a baleful piano banged away behind him. The verses may seem forthright in phrasing but they're oblique in meaning -- was he directing his gratitude toward a higher power, a physical lover, or to the undulating bodies in the room that had done him the great honor of waiting for his band's return? As with the best gospel music, the most likely answer was, "All of the above."