Arcade Fire, EP (2003) – 2 stars
Funeral (2004) – 4.5 stars
Neon Bible (2007) – 4.5 stars
Within seemingly 5 minutes of breaking onto the music scene, the Arcade Fire lost anonymity. David Bowie immediately proclaimed himself a major fan, festivals like Lollapalooza snapped them up, and U2 not only asked them to share stages on their Vertigo Tour but also played one of their tracks as the lead-in to every show. This acclaim within the industry was matched by the feelings felt by both critics and the public towards the band’s debut album, which currently sports a score of 90 on Metacritic.
Overreaction? Hardly. The group’s early EP didn’t show much promise, but 2004’s Funeral is the kind of album that everyone should like and yet doesn’t feel tailored to the masses, one that revels in its influences and yet still sounds utterly original, one that makes earnestness and sincerity cool again. Full of heart and bluster and pain and energy, it’s one glorious and dramatic journey into…death?
Well, yes, as the album’s title, and overall thematic breadth, reflects the passing of several family members within the band, which is headed by Win Butler and his wife Regine Chassagne. Joined by a bevy of other musicians and vocalists, they create soundscapes with a host of orchestral instruments. Minimalist, they are not; and their ambitions are so wonderfully refreshing in a age of simplicity in music. Starting things off is the first of 4 “neighborhood” passages that reflect the band’s wistfulness; on the opener, stately piano underscores Win’s gradually crescendoing vocals about the hope of children to escape family strife through friendship.
The band clearly wants immediacy, wants to cling to something positive, wants respite from torpor and sadness. A couple songs submerge songcraft for instrumentation that’s too hard to parse (the second “Neighborhood,” for example, doesn’t stick in the mind); but the revelatory power put forth on tracks like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” uplifts listeners, no matter how ambivalent the subject matter—yes, the Fire has that men-from-the-boys quality of being able to make darkness life-affirming. Butler eschews the kind of detached, stoic cool that pervades much of 2000s music and hit peaks of intensity instead: when he cries on Power Out, “Is it a dream, is it a lie? / I think I’ll let you decide / Light a candle for the kids / Jesus Christ, don’t keep it hid” the feeling is overwhelming.
And then there’s “Wake Up,” the U2 fade-in that inspires no reservations whatsoever about that band’s taste. An epic, pull-back-on-the reins rock anthem, filled with color and energy, it’s one of those songs that sounds as though it could have been written anytime in the last 30 years—or the next 30. As he does on “Rebellion,” Butler encourages people to persevere through tragedy, once again expressing nostalgia for foregone innocence (“Now that I’m older / My heart’s colder / And I can see that it’s a lie”).
A few years in the making and less grandiose, 2007’s Neon Bible imparts a cloudier, murkier hue upon listeners, replacing epic feelings with more down-to-earth ruminations. Like on all great sequels (Joy Division’s Closer, the second and third Bourne movies, etc), they’ve accurately determined just what to include and what to change. You can hear Joy Division in its (occasionally) cavernous darkness, you can hear U2 in the earnestness and anthems, you can hear Bruce Springsteen (“Antichrist Television Blues”), but you can also hear no one. Just as with the first album, Neon Bible doesn’t really sound like anybody. It’s just The Arcade Fire.
I vividly remember my first listen to Bible, being blown away by the effect of the added atmosphere, not believing how macabre and gloomy and thrilling those first four songs sounded. “Black Mirror,”—there’s your Joy Division ominousness, given liftoff—and “Keep the Car Running,” unleashing mandolins and all kinds of exuberant fun, eliminate any possibility of a let-down. And when the bottom drops out of the breathtaking “Intervention,” at the 2:01 mark, the same thing will happen to your jaw.
In a somewhat similar vein as Funeral, the band still gets into trouble with their propensity for limpid, virtually guitar-free mood pieces (“Neon Bible” in particular; the best of these is “Ocean of Noise,” in no small part thanks to the excellent line, “You’ve got your reasons / And me, I’ve got mine / But all the reasons I gave were just lies to by myself some time.”)
Indeed, Butler’s lyrics have a way of covering up the band’s minor imperfections. They’re a little broader than on Funeral, but still personal, still vivid. The “Power Out” vocal intensity comes on “Intervention”—“Been working for the church while your life falls apart / Been singing ‘Hallelujah’ with the fear in your heart.” But not every song matches them appropriately; when “Windowsill” accelerates, he cries, “The windows are locked now, so what’ll be it be / A house on fire / Or a rising sea?” an image that conjures up far more emotion than the instrumentation—they need a little less gray, a little more guitar.
But that line resonates with the listener, in part because it’s surprisingly reflective of the band’s career. Funeral is the house on fire, Neon Bible the rising sea; but they’ve always taken their dystopia with a different bent than most. Their worldview is best summed up by the top line on ATB: “Into the light of a starless sky / I’m staring into nothing, and I’m asking you why.” Rather than simply reflecting misery, they’re always asking why, and always staring ahead, irrespective of what looks back at them. With their pivotal third album set to be released this August, the world cannot possibly predict what they will see next.