Every now and then a band comes along and changes your life. That’s what happened with myself and the wonderful, perfect Arcade Fire. The year was 2005, and even then Coachella was kind of a big deal. I mention it only because that was the year an unassuming group of musicians from Montreal took the festival by storm and captured the energy and pure essence of what Coachella is with one mesmerizing performance that since has become the beginnings of modern music legends.
That band obviously was Arcade Fire. With the core of the band Led by by the brothers Butler, and Win’s wife Regine Chassagne, they proved to make a lasting impression on unassuming festival goers. As soon as I heard about it and watch a little of bit of the “Rebellion(Lies)” video, I had to have the album.
What you get when you put that disc in your player though, is a thing that very rarely comes around. The debut album by the Arcade Fire, “Funeral,” is full of tormented honesty about the becoming of life, and the struggle of every person to stay relevant and to still allow ourselves the gift of love. Song after song represent this, and the sincerity of the music only helps to add to the pure nature of the sound.
Of all the tracks presented on “Funeral,” one of the best is without the doubt the power driven anthematic power of “Wake Up.” It’s since become the band's best known song, and signature closer, but the magic of the song stands in it’s delivery. If you've ever seen it performed live, you know what I’m talking about. The opening chant is something to behold, and being in a crowd of thousands chanting along can do wonders for your heart and soul.
I think in part the first album works so well because of the nature of the band instrumentally and the unorthodox sound of Win’s voice. In terms of his voice, there’s a genuine honesty that adds weight and meaning to the tracks. It works in the same way Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk hotel’s voice works, but that’s not to say that Win’s voice is the sole redeeming quality in the band. All the members have an excellent skill set , and even as they’ve grown over records, the quality of this first record, this “Funeral,” is still quite high.
Songs like “Wake Up” kill, but others do the part to make the album excellent also. “Haiti” is a love song for the home country of Regine’s, while all of the “Neighborhood” tracks, especially #1 rock with childlike wonder at the world beyond them. One of the shining stars though, is the epic closer which is “In the Back Seat.” Regine’s vocals wearily pass over late night roads, and witness the world from this unique perspective. It’s always reminded me of Death Cab’s “Passenger Seat,” and it’s pretty easy to see why. This one is a little more pronounced, in musicality terms, but you could easily picture them in the same world. From here though, Arcade Fire was a band changed, and they’d continue making solid album after solid album.
But, it’s easier said than done, especially after such a career defining album like “Funeral.” If you're this band though, you purchase an old run down church, and create an often overlooked album that solidified the band as an indie rock powerhouse.
Released in the spring of 2007, the second album, “Neon Bible,” is both a step forward and a reminder of what makes the band so good. They as a whole have this ability to make albums that perfectly reflect the theme and title of every album. That concept is alive and well on “Neon.”
The record has sadness to it of course, but it’s a different kind of darkness than what’s represented on the first record. To me it all sounds like the epiphany that mother, father, and the house of god isn’t going to save you, and you’re on your own. This is probably most clearly seen on “Intervention.” The vocals are solemn, and the lyrics are real world depth and despair. It’s a sobering call to arms, and unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be a winning battle. The organ throughout also helps to raise the hopelessness rampant throughout the track.
I’ve never been a religious person by much stretch of the imagination, but this record, this music, truly captured the feelings I had while I was an early child being shown the shape of things in the way or religion. Take that as you want, but on that level I can relate to the themes of the album. The album, while a critical hit overall, generally isn’t mentioned as the best record to date for the band. I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump even slightly, but among the various other adventures the band has taken us one, it’s hardly monumental and life changing.
That isn’t to say, however, that certain songs presented on this record aren’t among their best. The song I’m most referencing, quite simply, is “My Body is a Cage.” This track is so captivating and powerful you might as well say it carries the album to new heights. I’d agree with you if you said that.
It plays brilliantly among the various tracks, and it rounds out the experience in a precise manner. I don’t often veer towards these types of areas in these pieces, but this song fits well in many ways, one of which you’re likely to have seen if you’re a big fan. What I’m talking about is the pairing between this song and the Sergio Leone film “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Set to images from the superb film, it’s one of the most innovative and interesting things I’ve ever seen paired between the worlds of sound and visuals on the internet. It’s also a testament to the fervor and enthusiasm people have for this band. If you’ve not yet seen this, I highly recommend you visit the internet. It’s wonderful and poignant.
There are a few albums in your life that transform you as a person, and you never know when those records are going to hit you, but in the summer of 2010, Arcade Fire took us on a trip that not only bought the band to an even higher level of artistry, but made them known to a vastly larger number of people than the two previous records did. This trip, to “The Suburbs,” is yet another masterstroke in a short period of time.
If “Funeral” was about the death of innocence and naivety, and “Neon bible,” was about struggling with your own place in life and mortality, “The Suburbs” is without a doubt about the struggles of growing out of the urban sprawl, and how the monotony of everyday life can breed not only random excitement, but also a very real sense of being ordinary.
It’s still easily my favorite record the band ever did, and there’s a few reason for that. First, the songwriting quality and themes presented on the record are next level amazing. How the band manages to weave similar ideas(in the form of the same lyrics being used in a few key spots), makes you feel like you’re back in that suburban high school life.
The second, which more or less lines up with my previous point. As a kid, a teenager, there are many emotions running through us. Life is a vast, unsure terrain, and the concepts and consequences we have as adults aren’t as clear at the early age. That’s the wonder and majesty of “The Suburbs.” Song after song presents these ideas in vividly powerful moments in time we all likely have experienced growing up while trying to figure out this wild world. Tracks like “Rococo” slam the cliche hipsters in the mall trying to act original but having little to no idea that they’re simply a different breed of sheep, while “Empty Room,” is the perfect song for a struggling kid who’s only solitude is their bedroom because “When I'm by myself I can be myself.” I relate to that feeling, because I was that kid. We all were at some points, and it’s ok, because eventually your true self comes out and the world is a thing worth discovering.
By this point in their career, they were larger than most bands could dream of. To celebrate of course, they played Coachella for a third time, and even if the first two appearances had been simply enjoyable, the third time was the moment where they became the kings of the California festival. Known for epic sing a longs when ‘Wake Up” is performed, the band, I guess, wanted to give the crowd something special for their first time headlining. As the song is performed, giant plastic balls fall from the stage above and bounce enthusiastically all over the stage. It would have been amazing if they left it at that, but they didn’t. Coming back for the encore, the opening chords of “Suburbs” track “Ready to Start” begin pumping through the stage, and these ordinary balls start glowing and blinking with the beats of the music. Even on video, it’s one of the most badass things I’ve ever seen, and if you are uninitiated, please google it. It’s worth it.
Even beyond that gesture though, one song that stands out as a classic among the band is the timeless, thoughtful track that begins to wind this album to a close. That song, of course, is “Sprawls II(Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The track, one of a few to feature Regine on vocals, isn’t just the best track on the record, it’s a reminder of the turbulence of life, and her voice helps to move it to a vulnerable, but ultimately powerful place where creativity, beauty, and all the happiness you want in life is allowed to be shared and treasured. There aren’t many bands that can take darkness and uncertainty and make you grateful for your life and experiences, but Arcade Fire is one of them, at least for me.
Of course after that, the Grammy’s were won, and the band went from being Indie Alternative darlings to the biggest answer to “Who is That?” that the Grammy’s have ever given an award to. On the heels of a brilliant third album, this “unknown” band had “Arrived.” It honestly quite laughable because at this point my group of friend had been discussing their importance for going on five years, but oh well it happens sometimes.
So how do you follow up what many people call your “Kid A.” If you’re this band, at this point in their creative journey, you move to Jamaica, and also New Orleans to make a record that is totally more dance oriented and open ended than their previous records. You also convince the god that is Bowie to appear briefly on the title and opening track.
Many of the songs are able to capture the themes and elements that made the bad prominent, while veering into literal uncharted territory. All over the record you get random instruments you’d never had heard of on previous albums,and like I said, you find yourself getting lost in grooves and hooks that the band weren’t exactly known for.
Among the highlights of “Reflektor,” are of course, the long winded and potent title track, but other songs make their presence known also. “Normal Person,” hits with the emotion you’d expect from earlier albums, and it probably is the track most in line with previous efforts, but that’s not to say it’s step backwards. It’s more than likely one of my favorite tracks on the album, and it jams in a vintage type of way that most of their other songs don’t. At the very least, the bridge and build up at the end is masterfully done, and get’s me rocking in a way that I wasn’t even aware this band could do to me.
The album really hits on several big discoveries about the band, at least to me. For one, they are capable of making moving music that also makes you want to move your hips to, and they’re just as good as imposing the things we loved about the Arcade Fire beforehand on a very different wavelength. The lyrics and ultimate message can be heartfelt and meaningful, even though the tracks are noticeably more upbeat and drum oriented. Maybe the most unlike Arcade Fire Arcade Fire song on “Reflektor” though, is the underrated, and subversive “Porno.” It’s a total heartbreaker of a song, and sets the band perfectly up to play this track in a seedy, late night bar glowing with red lights. I imagine a few different bars in New Orleans being fitted perfectly for this track, and if you’ve spent much time in this city, you may have a few bars in mind also. The song just works, and it’s highly suggestive, but maybe not in the way you think at first glance. When Butler bellows “You Say Love is real, like a disease,” you feel the hollowness fill up the backspace of the track, and it’s this heartbroken emptiness that fills the song, and makes you wonder what you’re doing wrong. It’s a solemn, dance track that’s unlike any other song I’ve heard.
The album, not surprisingly, did well, and the band was mentioned on various year end lists. At this point, you shouldn’t be surprised that this happens every time this group releases a new record. Like I said way back when, bands like this rarely come around, fortunately for us, they seem to be just getting started. From the pains of growing up, hopelessness and trying to matter, to gathering around to celebrate various cultures and new ways of doing things, this band has evolved into one of the best, most intriguing acts of the millennium, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Thanks for reading. See you next week, when we’ll dedicating a whole week of posts to the amazing electronic composer, Dan Deacon.
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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