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 an embryonic album with hints of what’s to come, 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 get a lot of mileage from the juxtaposition of 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 miscellaneous 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 not dissimilar from Bono. Butler takes most of the lead vocals, but sometimes his wife Régine Chassagne also takes the lead.
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 recorder in a pre-Renaissance medieval band.
Arcade Fire Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Funeral
Overlooked Album: Neon Bible
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 bandleader 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 do share common themes of 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 critically acclamation for Funeral meant that Neon Bible was one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of 2007. Impressively, it doesn′t disappoint in any way; while it does lack the charged guitar and unhinged vocals that made Funeral so immediately enchanting, 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 seguing into each other, almost feels like a progressive rock suite; for example, even if the title track doesn′t stand out individually 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 immediate songs include the propulsive ‘No Cars Go′, and the climactic, cathartic closer ‘My Body Is A Cage′. Even the more low key stuff′s 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 front man.
Arcade Fire’s third album raised their profile as one of the Indie rock bands to break through 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 for the album. The Suburbs is long, at over an hour, but does well at keeping 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 6 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. 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 Arcade Fire have 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.
2017, not yet rated
The group’s newest album has received the weakest reviews of their career, but I like their other records enough that I should check it out sometime….
Ten Favourite Arcade Fire Songs
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
My Body is a Cage
Crown of Love
(Antichrist Television Blues)