For a band, there are essentially two different career trajectories for a recording career. Like Radiohead or The Beatles, you can start your career with a promising album and work your way up to your masterpiece. Or, like Montreal’s Arcade Fire, you can begin with your masterpiece and spend the rest of your career trying to live up to it. 2004’s Funeral is a terrific debut, and despite the highlights in the rest of their career, I’m not sure that Arcade Fire will ever match its intensity and freshness.
Arcade Fire juxtapose aggressive and stripped-down band tracks and the less conventional rock instruments layered over the top. Most of the band members are multi-instrumentalists, and the instruments like accordions and strings give the band its distinctive nuances. Win Butler’s charismatic authoritative voice is the band’s main attraction, providing a spiritual fervour that’s similar to Bono. Butler takes most of the lead vocals, but sometimes his wife Régine Chassagne also takes the lead. The rhythm section of Jeremy Gara and Tim Kingsbury has remained constant since before Funeral, but the group have gone through a large supporting cast, including Butler’s brother Will.
Both Butler and Chassagne come from interesting backgrounds; Butler grew up Mormon, spent part of his childhood in Buenos Aires, and is the grandson of jazz guitarist and bandleader Alvino Rey. The part-Haitian Chassagne’s previous musical experience was playing the recorder in a pre-Renaissance medieval band.
Arcade Fire Album Reviews
The title Funeral was inspired by the deaths of several relatives of the band during recording, including Chassagne’s mother and grandmother, and Butler’s grandfather, big band leader and pedal steel player Alvino Rey. While they’re firmly part of the indie camp, even on this debut their individual sound is established.
These songs aren’t necessarily particularly sophisticated, but there are hooks all over the place, from the choral backing vocals to the string or accordion melodies, and Butler′s emotive delivery is engaging. The four parts of ‘Neighbourhood’ aren’t linked musically, but they share common themes. Community and relationships; the determination to make the most of life is another recurring motif. Other highlights include the elegant string-driven ‘Crown of Love’, the driving ‘Wake Up’ and the backing vocal hooks of ‘Rebellion (Lies)’.
Funeral is a very strong debut, and it deservedly won polls for best album of both 2004 and 2005; it wasn’t released until 2005 outside of North America.
The critical acclamation for Funeral meant that Neon Bible was one of the most eagerly anticipated indie albums of 2007. It lacks the charged guitar and unhinged vocals that made Funeral so invigorating, the slightly more restrained approach is more a different slant from the band than a drop off in inspiration or quality. Rather than dulling the group′s impact, the more refined, disciplined sound simply provides a different angle for The Arcade Fire to work from. As other commentators have noted their anthemic sound is almost like a more organic version of early eighties rock, like Springsteen, Echo and the Bunnymen and early U2. The album′s flow and intelligent sequencing, with tracks segueing into each other, is akin to a progressive rock suite For example, the title track doesn′t stand out individually but it works perfectly as a respite between the acoustic guitar-driven intensity of ‘Keep The Car Running′ and the grandiose Church organ of ‘Intervention′. And while there′s a drop off in energy level, there are more diverse textural elements employed; the group recorded the orchestral parts in Budapest, as well as using a church organ in their hometown of Montreal.
While Regine took a couple of lead vocals on Funeral, here she only sings the lightweight first half of the multi-part ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations′, almost another respite before Butler′s dramatic lead vocal takes over. As well as ‘Keep The Car Running′ and ‘Intervention′, other accessible songs include the propulsive ‘No Cars Go′, and the climactic, cathartic closer ‘My Body Is A Cage′. Even the more low key material is engaging; ‘Ocean Of Noise′ has a low key arrangement but still sounds majestic on the basis of its grandiose melody, while ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)′ sacrifices melody for the urgent, Springsteen-like acoustic guitar and vocal. It feels like there′s tons of interesting Christian allegory in this record, especially ‘The Well And The Lighthouse′, where the protagonist chooses a dark well (“You fool, now that you know your end is near; you always fall for what you desire or what you fear”) over the lighthouse (“If you leave them ships are gonna wreck”).
Neon Bible is a worthy successor to Funeral, showcasing a band that′s quirky yet majestic, with a charismatic, engaging frontman.
Arcade Fire’s third album raised their profile as one of the Indie rock bands to breakthrough close to the mainstream. Notably, The Suburbs won a Grammy for Album of the Year, famously provoking an outburst from Rosie O’Donnell who used social media to decry the choice on the grounds that she’d never heard of them. It’s a conceptual album, evoked by the Butler’s upbringing in suburban Texas. Win Butler has described the album’s sound palette as a mixture of Depeche Mode and Neil Young, which is uncannily accurate.
Some of my favourite songs on The Suburbs are the stripped back, intense acoustic strumming of ‘Modern Man’ and ‘City With No Children’. But it’s the Chassagne fronted ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, a majestic, pulsing epic that feels like the apex of the album. The Suburbs is long, at over an hour, but keeps the momentum up, and there’s little in the way of fat to trim.
The Suburbs is a successful concept album for the Arcade Fire – a long, yet satisfying album that’s an excellent addition to their catalogue.
Reflektor was inspired by Win Butler’s first visit to Haiti, his wife’s birthplace. The band drew on the influence of Haitian rara music, making an album that’s more dance-able than anything they’d made previously. The band enlisted LCD Soundsystem front-man James Murphy as a producer and recorded the album in multiple studios at a cost of US $1.6 million.
The dance-oriented sound works well for the band, while Butler’s lyrics that deal with issues like the arrival of missionaries in Haiti are consistently interesting. But with a bunch of six-minute songs stretched over 80 minutes, the album suffers from its homogeneous sound, and it was the band’s weakest to date.
The most effective song is the opening title track, with David Bowie on backing vocals. It shows the potential of dance-oriented Arcade Fire with plenty of hooks and it has no difficulty in supporting a six-minute running time. The band’s immersion to dance music is fun on ‘Here Comes The Night Time’. But a lot of the other songs outlast their welcome and there isn’t enough happening musically to supplement Butler’s strong lyrics.
Like every other album that Arcade Fire has made to date, Reflektor is a valiant attempt to stake out new sonic territory, but it’s too long and drawn out to satisfy fully.
Everything Now follows Reflektor into dance-oriented territory, recalling 1980s synth-pop. Where Reflektor was grounded in Haitian and Jamaican music, Everything Now lacks organic grit and at its worst feels empty and vacuous. Arcade Fire produced Everything Now along with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Pulp’ Steve Mackey. Everything Now focuses on themes of consumerism and excess, as spelt out on the title track: “‘Til every room in my house/Is filled with shit I couldn’t live without”.
There’s a particularly rough stretch in the middle of Everything Now with the plastic soul of ‘Chemistry’ and the trite pun that anchors ‘Infinite Content’. The best tracks are generally the singles – ‘Creature Comfort’ has one of Butler’s most charismatic vocals with the line “God, make me famous/If you can’t, just make it painless.” The title track nails the 1980s vibe that the band are shooting for, with a memorable synth-hook.
Everything Now has its moments, but it’s Arcade Fire at their hollowest.
Win Butler started writing Arcade Fire’s sixth album before the COVID-19 pandemic, but songs like ‘Age of Anxiety I’ fit the zeitgeist perfectly. Musically, We largely abandons the dance music of Arcade Fire’s previous two records – it’s more like a sequel to Neon Bible. Produced by Nigel Godrich along with Butler and Chassagne, it takes its name from Russian dystopian novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. We is inconsistent, but its best moments recapture the band’s earlier peaks.
The second side is much stronger than the first – in particular, ‘The Lightning I’ is one of the band’s best, with its simple-yet-effective synth riff and some of Butler’s best lyrics “We were born in paradise/Beneath the poisoned sky”. ‘Unconditional II’, featuring Peter Gabriel, is also a standout while Butler has fun dishing out advice on ‘Unconditional I’ (“You know how to move your hips/And you know God is cool with it”). The unadorned title track is also a favourite. The first side is less consistent – in particular ‘End of Empire IV (Sagittarius A)’, with its repetitive refrain of “I unsubscribe”, is one of the band’s toughest listens.
There’s at least half a great album on We – if you haven’t enjoyed the band’s recent work, it’s worth checking back in.
Ten Favourite Arcade Fire Songs
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
No Cars Go
The Lightning I
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Crown of Love
(Antichrist Television Blues)
Unconditional II (Race and Religion)
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