Just lately it has become almost impossible to get even two lines into any piece of writing about M.I.A. without the author paying lip service to the “bad year” she’s had. In a chicken/egg situation, her third album ‘Maya’ was viewed as evidence of her having come slightly off the boil, and her public image took a battering thanks to her infantile reactions to unsavoury journalism. Subsequently, every single M.I.A. review you come across these days contains at least one obligatory witticism regarding truffle fries (keep your eyes peeled for mine, below), whilst failing to acknowledge that there were actually a fair few moments of noise-drenched brilliance littered throughout the record. Tonight, however, prowling across the stage with her trademark swagger, in a newspaper-print dress, M.I.A. doesn’t give any indication of having read her own lukewarm press, or - if she has - just doesn’t give a fuck.
If ‘Maya’ was a remarkably self-assured record, M.I.A.’s live show redoubles that conviction, and then some. Massive neon lights spell out the album’s title above our heads, projections of pulverising colour fill the back of the stage, strobes and lasers fire from all angles. It actually seems darker when the house lights come up. Thankfully, the sound matches the visual onslaught. The opening wails of World Town slide tackle our eardrums, whilst the accompanying bass gets to work clearing our sinuses. Flanked by enthusiastic dancers, M.I.A. gets the party started quickly, kicking it into ever-higher gears by launching herself into the crowd during an early airing of Bucky Done Gun and facilitating a vast stage invasion during Boyz. She’s impossibly cool - as well as agonisingly sexy - but never aloof. The perfect hostess for a neon-lit rave.
However, there is a niggling feeling that the whole thing is a bit hollow theatre; more style than substance, more truffle than fries. M.I.A. isn’t a go-to artist for stunning vocal performances, so it’s unfortunate that her voice is her only prop in the live setting; aside from a drummer during Born Free, the entirety of the sound is provided by a combination of DJ and backing track. The unremarkable vocal delivery of songs like Luvalot has a karaoke-ish tinge - more than is desirable. You begin to suspect that the concert is little more than listening to the record really loudly, with an added sense of occasion. But of course, that’s an argument to be made for a great number of concerts, and it’s important not to undervalue the sense of occasion that a show like this can provide. The distractingly relentless onslaught of propulsive beats and flashing colours ultimately makes gripes like this fleeting. As she sultrily gyrates to the throbs of Galang or leaps about to the fierce pounding of Meds and Feds, it’s clear that M.I.A. remains an engagingly confident showgirl, and an exciting person to spend an hour with. Tonight, her muddy press and patchy studio output is left at the door. The whole spectacle is undoubtedly a joy to behold, and a lot of fun to be a part of.