Without a doubt one of the truly great bands of our time, formed in Montreal in 2001 by prime motor Win Butler, together with a cast of friends and classmates.
While the first 7 track EP showed some promise, it´s still mostly interesting in the light of what came afterwards. Even though “No cars go” was considered good enough to reappear on their second album “Neon Bible”, this collection of songs has a certain originality but not much more. For example the boy/girl singing of “I´m sleeping in a submarine” borrows the dynamics of The Sugarcubes, without really going anywhere with it, unlike the magic of the combination of Björk and Einar Örn.
Extensive personnel changes as well as founders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne becoming a couple had a lasting influence on the group. First album “Funeral”, released 2004, dealt with heavy subjects like the passing on of several relatives of persons in the band. With a sleeve carrying the aesthetic of the first EP forward, Arcade Fire seemed to be content with their indie credentials and expectations were accordingly. The songs, however, turned out to be extraordinary both in subject matter and form. Inventive music by musicians developing their craft, with unique melodies and textures as well as lyrics part of a greater story of love and loss. Filled with moments of unsurpassed beauty, making this an album of ideas realized by a select group of people, with an impact much greater than what would have been expected from the ingredients. The feeling of a concept album, although much maligned in the contemporary rock scene, added considerable strength to what was basically a debut by an unknown band. This collection of songs is still by any standards remarkable and very much feels like the creation of intuitive genius. Both musically and lyrically adventurous and with a sound completely their own.
The subsequent story is well know – the album becoming a word of mouth success leading to the band being pictured on the cover of Time magazine´s Canadian edition. Upon touring the album the building momentum around the group necessitated moving to increasingly larger venues, as their reputation as a live act grew.
I have no idea how instant success affected the band, but if anybody would be expected to suffer from the difficult second album syndrome, it´s these guys and gals. Recorded in a disused church turned into recording studio by the band, “Neon Bible” (2007) was the work of a group of people suddenly turned into a force of contemporary rock music. Apparently not inspired by the John Kennedy O´Toole novel, it´s still a great title that maybe could have been thought of twice. Almost universally hailed at its release, I remember a certain disappointment that some of the initial innocence of the band´s music had turned into a slightly less interesting competence. While still clearly being one of the best albums of the year, I felt that Arcade Fire had turned into more of an ordinary rock band than they had been before. Today I´m not sure just why that would be considered a problem, and repeat listenings while writing this tells me I was reading things wrong back then. The sound of “Neon Bible” is much more focused in a rock band direction than was the debut, and so what? The quality of the songs are very high and anybody wanting to explore the development the band had gone through since their beginnings can just compare the two versions of “No cars go”. Returning themes of this record is the duality between light and darkness, black and white, as seen in both song titles and lyrics. The reflection of yourself seen in “le miroir noir”, the neon bible lighting up the darkness, a black wave carrying bad vibrations instead of the good ones expected – maybe not that strange coming from an ocean of noise, served by a lighthouse whose brightness is contrasted by the darkness of a well. Without a doubt this was the necessary next step by a band going from indie oblivion to the higher echelons of contemporary art rock. If you´re not convinced, just listen to “My body is a cage” and be blown away.
“The Suburbs” (2010) upped the ante with no less than 16 songs made by a band confident in their creative process. Seemingly more at peace with their position as resident mainstream indie wonders, the band lets loose in a diverse but still cohesive cycle of songs. Here the idiosyncratic vision of early Arcade Fire finally meets the accomplished songwriters and musicians they´ve become. From start to finish the quality of these songs are remarkable and combines originality with clarity of vision. The idea of the biographical artist has been very much lauded in both literature and music, somehow implying that depictions of actual events are more interesting than fictional ones. What this record shows above anything else is the power of imagination. It´s immersed in the art of storytelling from the perspective of coming of age in a certain milieu.
Good fiction is always superior to mere factually correct retellings of incidents in a person´s life, by means of the story´s transformative power of turning the personal into the general. Part of what makes “The Suburbs” into such a great work of art, is exactly this dislocation from how earlier works was expected to be an iteration of personal experiences, and the development into these entirely new fictional territories. Musically, this is an album that could only have been made by songwriters and musicians firmly confident in their abilities, while still remaining adventurous and inquisitive. The creative scope here is huge and very neatly paired with actual accomplishments. For most rock groups something as good as this would be their crowning achievement and as such a point of departure for all future works.
The latest collection of Arcade Fire music called “Reflektor” (2013) is such an oddity as a CD double album. Mainly produced by James Murphy of LCD Sound System fame, this is a change of course for the band, making a right turn into the land of electronic dance music. Every time you choose something new you will also decide to lose something old. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. That said, I must confess to having some reservations upon first hearing this album. Much of what had been the defining points of Arcade Fire has been left behind while embracing the new direction of this group of musicians. Their multi-instrumental past is exchanged for a more closed synthetic sound. “Reflektor” is in many ways a change of direction that´s not obviously leading things forward. But on the other hand, how do we know what´s the best way for a group to evolve?
Opening song “Reflektor” goes from proto-disco propelled by bongos, through a lifting chorus and onwards to an ending of call and response with none less than David Bowie. I agree with my colleague D. that this is a great song, and he usually knows what he´s talking about. Still, I can´t get Blondie´s “Heart of glass” out of my head while listening to this one. Seeing that “Reflektor”, along with several other songs on the album shows some similarities with the dance/disco sound of 80´s Bowie, it´s perhaps no surprise that the man himself turns up here. The dance pop of “We exist” could be seen as strengthening this point even though it undoubtedly deserves a life of its own.
Some of the sessions for the album were done in Jamaica of all places, and “Flashbulb eyes” exhibits the first signs of local influence in its marriage of electropop and dub. Going out into the unknown, the song is still a successful union perhaps saved by its brevity. The next one “Here comes the night time” doesn´t fare as well. If anyone was curious of how an Arcade Fire spoof of Vampire Weekend might sound like, this is the answer. Why anyone would consider this song good enough to appear in two different versions on the album is beyond me. “Normal person” defines the level of contrast on offer here, being a straightforward rocker with an ill-adviced pasted on guitar line. The stomping pop soul of “You already know” sets the music flying again, with its effortless melodic drive carrying the song forward. “Joan of Arc” on the other hand enhances the duality of this record by its Pixies-type punk intro which quickly metamorphoses into Glitter-band country.
“Awful sound (Oh Eurydice)” is the closest we get to the aesthetics recognizable as an Arcade Fire tune, the lyrics repeating the concept of falling in love on a stage in a reflective age from the title song. Continuing the classical references “It´s never over (Hey Orpheus)” takes the soul pop side of the band forward with a nice, bubbling melody. The pretty straightforward synth-pop of “Porno” doesn´t really go anywhere unique, while still being a reliable example of the new way of the band.
The album finishes with two of the best songs of this great group. The juxtaposition of physics and metaphysics of “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry” is probably not a coincidence, even though it might seem so. “Afterlife” has all the makings of a classic song – the melodic inventiveness, well thought-out lyrics, top-class singing and arrangements and a certain determined lightness lifting your spirit along with the music. Closer “Supersymmetry” slows things down into an air of introspection. What´s with this year? Nick Cave writes about Higg´s boson and Arcade Fire about Supersymmetry. If ever there was a perfect last song of an album, this is it. The beautiful and winding down melody slowly transforming into a drone part reminiscent of the sound of the dead souls in Kiyoshi Kurosawa´s classic movie “Pulse”. Curious and scary, just like it should be.