Image: Arcade Fire by Anton Corbijn.
Author: Sean Lees
Arcade Fire go above and beyond in selling a concept to audiences; upon each album’s release, their entire aesthetic changes. It’s not simple enough to just release an album and have it appreciated by the world; each record presents an overarching message or story – their costuming and even stage design alter upon each album. Following the release of their most recent studio album Everything Now – which by now you’ve all heard and since forgotten in this fast-paced consumerist world we live in – let us follow their five musical and aesthetic incarnations so far.
Funeral is Arcade Fire distilled to its finest detail with piano, strings, xylophones and accordion providing more than just catchy riffs and harmonic backing. In opening track ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ Win Butler’s vocal delivery ranges from spoken yet sung to pleading shouts in the span of a verse. As snow covers the whole neighbourhood, teens build tunnels and climb chimneys to meet in the centre of town – leaving behind everything they’ve ever known. Escapism is glorified as fantasy – this euphoria is further exaggerated by the build-up of singing guitars and joyful dance beats as children swing on electricity cables and dance beneath police lights.
Introduced also is their flare for grandiose statements. The album is, as the title suggests, an album with much grieving; the weight of the world sits upon Win Butlers’ vocal chords as kids die lying in the snow. Regine Chassange’s fronted track ‘In The Backseat’ justifies taking a literal backseat to the world’s misgivings, it’s OK to seek sanctity from the harshness of today’s ever intricate world.
Neon Bible (2007)
Neon Bible is grim and menacing, Butler makes no hesitation to point out the corruption of church leaders, pyramid schemes and politicians ruled by greed, and the risk of the world’s destruction at the hands of those in power. The thick wall of bass behind each song; the thundering kick drum and tom, alongside the sharp saw of organ at times feels overblown in arrangement. On the other hand, an elegancy is present in the measured approach used to build intensity – Neon Bible knows just how to pull the punches and when.
Uplifting numbers such as ‘Keep The Car Running’ and ‘The Well And The Lighthouse’ keep me sane on re-listens, ever present is the ability to pen bright and jovial sounds of positivity underpinned by bleak lyricism of our stained Earth. The most harsh reminder may be the closing track; a cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘My Body Is A Cage’, overwhelming is the sense of claustrophobia and unrest as rough toms accompanied by blaring organs make their weight felt tenfold. Neon Bible is self-serious to a tee.
The Suburbs (2010)
The Suburbs feels like an ode to humanity, laying bare the day-to-day regimes and the necessity to work awful hours to maintain a lifestyle that demands everything, businessmen drink your blood and you wait in line because the world is promised to you – just to be pulled from under your feet. There’s the contemplation of bringing up children in a broken world, but also the joy of being a pure child screaming with joy and pivoting through pavement and grass on a hot summer’s day. Fundamentally an hour-long exercise in thinking about how we waste time as an adult by romanticising the wasted time of your youth. Do we just punch the clock, is there purpose to the precious time we have?
The arrangements of flashy orchestral-tinged songs such as ‘Ready to Start’ and ‘Empty Room’ leave me optimistic and make for fantastic songs to jump along to. Softer folk numbers spanning from ‘Suburban War’ to ‘Wasted Hours’ pull the nostalgic heartstrings.
Match the electronic inspired ‘Sprawl II’ and ‘Half Light II’ from The Suburbs with the Haitian rara music of Chassange’s country of birth, throw in the production chops of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Reflektor is the result. Fortunately, Reflektor doesn’t sacrifice organic instruments for the sexy allure of synthesisers. ‘We Exist’ handles the moog bass lines with the more traditional strings excellently, dissipating into a swift whir of synth at the climax of each chorus.
For a pop record, the sound doesn’t feel at all compromised or squeaky clean, vocal samples and found sounds often played during intros and outros seamlessly bride material together. Thematically, this is a double record and while the first half is a lot more uplifting, the second half sounds decidedly more down-tempo and relaxed. Ever present are the messages of isolation and death, the digital landscape we are so accustomed to and brazen questioning of why religion dictates the good or bad. Of course, this is penned by the most danceable rhythms imaginable.
Everything Now (2017)
Everything Now doubles down on the electronic elements of Reflektor, focusing on our most recent fascination with infinite consumerism, narcissism and paranoia. The title track is probably the most organic sounding of the album, bright pan flutes sing accompanied by an ABBA-inspired combination of piano, bass and acoustic guitar. And yet ‘Good God Damn’ and ‘Put Your Money On Me’ feel the need to just sit on the same groove without much variation. By using electronic music as a basis, it’s difficult for Arcade Fire to replicate what they’re traditionally known for – lively arrangements of unusual instrumentation with indie-pop sensibilities.
On the other hand, can a group making an honest effort to experiment with their sound be faulted? ‘Chemistry’ follows a traditional ‘oompa’ rhythm with horns you may often associate with beer halls, yet uses the wavering tones of bass and panting samples to round out the palette, sounding unlike any Arcade Fire song heard before. Nifty tricks like ‘Everything Now (Continued)’ open and close the album and seamlessly tie into the infinite content theme. Ultimately, Everything Now may be the most divisive of Arcade Fire’s releases so far, but you can’t deny its enjoyable moments.