Arcade Fire: A Decade of Decadence and Danceability
Arcade Fire is one of the most crucial bands of the past decade.
When they broke out on the scene in 2004, it was hard to fully imagine the avant-garde indie group from Montreal becoming one of the biggest acts on the planet – but that’s exactly what Arcade Fire managed to do.
Comprised of husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, along with Will Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara, and former core member Sarah Neufeld, they have frequently collaborated with James Murphy, Owen Pallett and filmmaker Spike Jonze, among others.
Beginning with their seminal debut, Funeral, the band has released masterpiece after masterpiece, including Neon Bible (2007), The Suburbs (2010) and Reflektor (2013).
Each record has been a testament to the vitality of the LP format, and a singular and sprawling concept album in its own right.
Once compared to Bowie and Springsteen in terms of sound, the band is now compared to those figures in terms of myth. And in their swift ascent to the top, they’ve never once compromised their artistic integrity, ambitious vision or their genuine humanity.
Here is a brief survey of their legacy so far.
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Arcade Fire launched out of the starting gate like few others have.
True to its name, Funeral is a very much a thematic meditation on life and death, written and recorded while Chassagne, Parry, and the Butlers were all ruminating on the recent passing of close relatives.
Though the album is marked by many somber sentiments, it is equally loaded with uplifting crescendos of life-affirming proclamation.
Recorded straight to tape, largely in a Montreal’s Hotel2Tango, tracks like “Crown of Love,” Haiti,” and “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” showcase Arcade Fire at their most elemental form. Conversely, songs like ”Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” foreshadow the arenas they would later fill, and remain two of the band’s most emblematic anthems.
Funeral was instantly and universally acclaimed by critics, not only earning several number one spots on media end-of-the-year lists, but later ranking as one of the top albums of the entire decade.
Drowned in Sound wrote of the album, “…empowering and hopeful and euphoric all at once…it says everything there is to say about mortality and it does it in 10 tracks.”
AllMusic called it, “brave, empowering, and dusted with something that many of the indie-rock genre’s more contrived acts desperately lack: an element of real danger.”
The album overtook Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as Merge’s best-selling album to date, as well as the label’s first release to crack the Billboard 200.
The hype earned the band several high-profile television spots and several opening gigs on U2′s Vertigo tour. At the Fashion Rocks TV special they memorably performed three songs with David Bowie – a powerful and fitting endorsement from one of their heroes and most direct influences.
Neon Bible (2007)
With the surprise spoils of Funeral, the band bought an old church in provincial Quebec, which they renovated into a recording studio.
Incorporating uncommon instruments such as pipe organ, accordion and hurdy-gurdy, the self-produced affair marks a darker, more grandiose sound for Arcade Fire, which many critics labeled as “baroque pop.”
Inspired in part by their churchly surroundings, Neon Bible is heavily underlined with themes of religious questioning, as is evidenced on songs such as “Intervention,” “(Antichrist Television Blues),” “The Well and the Lighthouse” and title track “Neon Bible.”
The album also contains more subtle themes of American mythology and post-9/11 disillusionment, which the A.V. Club characterized as the band ”sending a beacon to other reasonable people forced underground by the world’s insanity.”
Giving Neon Bible an “A+”, rock critic Robert Christgau said the band sounded more like a thud than a thunder, “but what a loud and joyous thud it is.”
The album debuted at the number two position on the Billboards around the same time Modest Mouse and the Shins had similar success on the charts, which many cited as a breakthrough period for the popularization of indie rock.
The recording and subsequent tour around Neon Bible was artfully documented by filmmaker Vincent Moon in the movie Miroir Noir. In a now-legendary first appearance on Saturday Night Live, Win Butler’s guitar strings snapped in the last moments of “Keep the Car Running,” prompting him to smash the instrument to pieces on stage.
The Suburbs (2010)
With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire made their most complete work to date.
Whereas with previous album cycles, Arcade Fire sounded like they we playing arenas, this time they actually were. And while you could accuse them of pursuing grand statements, their yielding of that power assures you of their noble intentions.
The Suburbs is a deep mediation on growing up, and the complex swarm of feelings that surround that period. Idealism meets realism, innocence meets angst, and the world makes so much sense while making no sense at all. The lyrics are thoughtfully composed, and Butler delivers them to be heard. By the end the listener feels like they’ve relived something they forgot they’d lost.
Stressing this conceptualism, an interactive music video for “We Used to Wait” allowed viewers to enter the address of their childhood home to generate a personalized version, cut in with images from Google Street View. The Spike Jonze-directed music video for “The Suburbs” is composed of excerpts from the director’s 30-minute short film, Scenes from the Suburbs.
The BBC called the album Arcade Fire’s ”most thrillingly engrossing chapter yet; a complex, captivating work that, several cycles down the line, retains the magic and mystery of that first tentative encounter.”
Spin wrote, ”Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, The Suburbs extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson’s sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth’s guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn’t just another spiritual cul-de-sac.”
The Suburbs earned Arcade Fire countless superlatives, including the 2011 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, which is uniquely also their first and only Grammy.
With little distance to climb up, Arcade Fire had nothing to prove – except that they could keep surprising.
What they made was something less focused than The Suburbs, but no equally ambitious, resulting in a double album worth of material.
Having sold their church, the band recruited longtime friend (and recently retired mastermind to LCD Soundsystem) James Murphy as co-producer. Partially recorded at Murphy’s DFA Studios, Arcade Fire picked up newfound danceability and nocturnal spirit.
The clever and effective concept attached to the name is, having achieved unprecedented visibility and definition, the band turned a mirror its audience.
To symbolically sidestep expectations, the band assumed a false name, The Reflektors, for their earliest shows, as well as for their lead single, title track, and album opener, “Reflektor,” which features a rare vocal contribution from David Bowie.
Sonically, Reflektor is heavily influenced by the music of Chassagne’s familial homeland of Haiti, as well as the music and culture of the greater Caribbean. Butler attributed much of the lyrical inspiration to the 1959 film Black Orpheus, based on the greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval.
As The Quietus aptly stated, “the question of what comes next, though, isn’t one that Arcade Fire need fear any longer. With Reflektor, they’ve answered it strongly. Four albums in, their sound glitters with many facets and possibilities – they can be proud of how it reflects on them.”
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