If you’d told me 16 years ago that one of ‘our’ bands would have a number one album on both sides of the Atlantic, win a Grammy for it (and a BRIT, and a Juno, and a Polaris), and then, for their follow-up, release a double-album referencing disco, dub, Haitian rara music, Black Orpheus, and Kierkegaard, with a Rodin sculpture on the cover, songs about Joan of Arc, lyrics in French, guest vocals from David Bowie, veiled references to Baudrillard, produced by an über-cool dance music legend, with a guerrilla marketing campaign involving arcane-looking symbols being daubed on buildings around the world, and which seems to try and comment on and question god, war, rock ‘n’ roll, imperialism, technology, and the way we live now as human beings, I’d have thought you were describing the greatest album ever made, that ‘we’ had ‘won’, and that the world into which this record was being released must be some kind of utopia.
So why am I only ‘enjoying’ Reflektor rather than worshipping it? And wtf is with all this ‘our’ and ‘we’ and ‘won’ business?
The Suburbs is all about tribalism in music; if you’re 16 and feel a little alienated, then you cling to music as part of your identity, as a definition of who you are and who you aren’t. At 16 I, and my friends, talked about ‘we’ as an amorphous entity comprised of people who preferred Smashing Punpkins and Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses to… whatever it was that other people liked. Which, looking back, was never explicitly understood. That’s adolescence for you. I’m in my 30s now. I don’t feel that tribalism in the same way anymore, but I can recall it.
Here are some petty and meaningless observances about the actual music. There’s an incongruous guest appearances from Jonathan Ross. The yelped titular refrain of “Already Know” sounds more like Win is singing “original” to my ears. Tempo switches as tunes start off fast and then shudder to a crawl seem to be a thing; they happen with the punky switch in “Joan of Arc” and the party switch in “Here Comes The Night Time” (which is amazing, genuinely). On “Normal People” Win asks us if we like rock ‘n’ roll music, and suggests that he doesn’t; I can identify. The second side is spacier, more cosmic. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” really reminds me of something in its grand, ascending chords, and it’s the kind of thing I suspect I ought to feel embarrassed about being familiar with. Like Marillion. Or Bon Jovi. “Supersymmetry”, despite its Muse-alike title, is a genuinely beatific and beautiful moment that doesn’t feel like anything else in the band’s oeuvre thus far. Even if it does end with 6+ minutes of almost-silent, arguably pointless tape wibble ambience. There is almost no reason beyond aesthetics and ego why this record needs to be a double. But I’m glad it is; it seems easier to understand as a double.
Sonically, aesthetically, I’m finding Reflektor by far Arcade Fire’s most enjoyable record so far; James Murphy has helped their sound acquire just the right amount of scuzz and scuff and energy. Although Neon Bible used dynamics as an excellent tool after the levelled bombast of Funeral, their first three records all felt a touch too… hurdy gurdy. They seemed to make efforts on The Suburbs to modernise a little with the likes of “Sprawl II”, but it still sounded “buttoned up” (as someone, I think on ILM, put it rather brilliantly). Here, they often sound genuinely loose and as if they’re having much more fun. A little like U2 on Achtung Baby, as many other people have pointed out. As far as arty arena rock goes, Coldplay aspire to this, dream of being this good. My first listen to Reflektor wasn’t via a screen, but rather on a big hi-fi in the livingroom. Maybe this is because I care too much, or don’t care, or have some self-restraint, or just prefer big speakers and amplifiers and CD players (I think they’re more fun, the way a cinema is more fun than a 14” portable TV). There are a lot of things going on here. It’s often the curse of now that we jam many disparate elements of colour together in the hope of making a rainbow, and end up instead with brown. I think they’ve just about avoided brown here; unlike The National on Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps.
A lot of people are saying Arcade Fire aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘sexy’, which is strange, as two of them presumably have sex with each other reasonably often, and have some physical proof of this to boot. wtf does ‘sexy’ mean in this context anyway? Are these reviewers saying they can’t imagine themselves having sex to an Arcade Fire record? That seems like a strange metric.
Matthew Perpetua shows that Buzzfeed isn’t just for shitty horse listicles, and pulls apart Arcade Fire rather well. Despite being continually obsessed with ‘the kids’, Win Butler is a fogey and always has been, and his efforts to develop and change and take risks are all very safe. As Perpetua points out, lunky dunderheaded stadium bands have been “going dance” for 30+ years. I think these days I want them to go jazz.
Win Butler’s band are also obsessed with the idea of being a band, of releasing records, of having fans, of being fans, of being friends. Win or Regine have asked, presumably the audience, if we can be friends several times now. Edwin Farnham Butler III is, lest we forget, the expensively educated son of an oilman, a teenage Radiohead fan from California via Texas who didn’t fit in there or in Boston, and who moved to Montreal and had an epiphany amongst the arts and culture kids. When he sang “if the businessmen drink my blood / like the kids at art school said they would”, he might be singing about his dad. His wife, Regine Chassagne, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier ‘s regime in the 60s.
A third obsession, linked to the first: with being on the outside and not invited in, a very adolescent sense of alienation by the cooler kids. And heaven! Win has a degree in religious studies, and he wants to get into heaven, too, even though he doesn’t believe in it. Neither do I. Arcade Fire have been supporting U2, playing arenas, since 2005. They’re as ‘in’ as you can get, surely? They’ve gota Grammy? But something clearly still smarts Win; and, you know, even if he did go to a famously posh school, you can feel like a misfit weirdo anywhere. People have been telling me my whole life that I’m odd or weird; they’ve probably been telling Win that, too. It’s just that my granddad machined steel tools in a factory rather than invented the pedal steel guitar.
“We’re a weird band in a mainstream context,” says Win in an NME interview this week, talking about winning a Grammy. And they are kind of weird, but they’re also not that weird at all. Springsteen, U2, disco, reggae; these are not weird musics to be influenced by. They’re not Gnaw Their Tongues or The Necks or Ornette Coleman or Coil or Whitehouse. Compared to The Fratellis, though, Arcade Fire are fucking crazy intellectual boho motherfuckers. Compared to his classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy, who are probably working in international banking and corporate law, Win Butler is some kind of creative genius freakazoid. Compared to Merzbow? Maybe not so much. Weird like Nirvana or The Cure. Those weirdo freaks who sold millions of records. I feel like Win needs a lot of affirmation. Fair enough. So do lots of people; especially popular rock musicians. Rock would be boring if they didn’t.
“They heard me singing and they told me to stop / ‘Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock’.” Some people do think that liking music, and liking making music, is outrageously pretentious. That creativity is for weirdos.
Irony of ironies, given that I don’t much like it, I probably owned Funeral before you did; I bought it on import in late 2004 before it was properly available over here. Because, back then, I was hot shit with the indie buzz bands. Thanks to all the American kids going crazy for it at Stylus, who gave it a rave in September 2004. Let’s not forget that “Rebellion (Lies)” always had a none-more U2 bassline, genetically engineered to get stadiums excited, even if much of the rest of the aesthetic was in line with Neutral Milk Hotel’s hurdy gurdy shouting.
I used to like anthemic rock a lot. I have little room for it in my life now. I’ve been playing “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers to death over the last few weeks, and it’s left me feeling as if today’s stadium shakers are just lacking in the kind of melody that feels like it’s squeezing my heart inside a fist, as if today’s kids are being short-changed by their arty stadium rockers. But it’s probably just that I’m older now.