When the Canadian ensemble Arcade Fire released their debut EP in 2003 it was inevitably lost in the shuffle, dismissed as just another helping of experimental indie pop from an unknown and unproven commodity, too obscure to register on the radar of even the most savvy of underground aficionados.
This all changed with the release of Funeral, the band's critically lauded and commercially lucrative full-length breakthrough. The success of that album propelled a cadre of anonymous musicians to instant superstardom, and thus the group's newfound status as overnight sensations transfigured their modest first EP into a coveted musical artifact.
Thus the intended roles of Arcade Fire's first two efforts was inverted, with the album proper building demand for the preceding EP. This resulted in the re-release of the band's eponymous EP in 2005, this time around finding a far more eager and receptive audience than it had encountered upon its initial issue.
This reissue is quite fortunate, as it would have been a pity for a work of this caliber to have been consigned to irrevocable obscurity. While obviously Funeral is a far more developed, accomplished work than its diminutive predecessor, the EP is still quite strong, offering a fascinating depiction of the band in their formative years.
The EP also demonstrates that the band had already made great strides towards establishing their own musical identity. From the very beginning Arcade Fire were a unique group, with a strong focus on sonic beauty. They completely eschewed the guitar-rock trend that was sweeping the alternative music scene, crafting material with an emphasis on more elaborate arrangements featuring everything from banjos to French horns. While on their lo-fi debut Arcade Fire obviously lacked the resources to showcase full orchestras and an array of session musicians as they would on their subsequent output, they still clearly differentiate themselves from the legions of faceless me-too indie-outfits, developing a unique style that would continue to evolve on their later releases.
The band's origins make for a charming anecdote, with a chance encounter between Win Butler and Regine Chassagne blossoming into musical collaboration and marriage, a quaint and innocent tableau that's certainly far less grim than the streak of deaths that would serve as the catalyst and inspiration for the album Funeral. The relative pleasantness of this genesis results in a decidedly less heart-wrenching experience than the tenebrous odyssey delivered on Funeral, but by no means does that signify that the material on the EP is lightweight, cheery or insubstantial.
For some elusive reason Chassagne suffers from the erroneous notion that she's Bjork, though this mimicry of the Icelandic diva's vocal intonations actually fits the band's music to some extent. On subsequent albums she'd gain more confidence in her own abilities, relinquishing this crutch and honing her own unique vocal style, but for now this emulation seldom detracts from the quality of the EP.
The duo of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne compose the core of the band, acting as chief songwriters and prominent musicians as well as alternating vocal responsibilities with one another, but the rest of the group, including Win's younger brother William, acquit themselves quite admirably as well, while the few session musicians the band could afford help the band better realize their greater artistic ambitions.
The songwriting on the EP is already highly impressive, with standouts like the eccentric I'm Sleeping In A Submarine, complete with the Gertrude Stein-paraphrasing of 'a cage is a cage is a cage,' and the absolute classic No Cars Go, a track Arcade Fire were evidently rather fond of as well given that it resurfaced on Neon Bible.
Thus the humble beginnings of Arcade Fire most certainly boded well for their future, presenting a band that already had a keen grasp of their own strengths, as well as precisely what they wanted to offer to their audience. It's a testament to the quality of the EP that even those already exposed to Arcade Fire's seminal breakthrough Funeral still find much to praise about the debut, a unique and impressive product that thankfully evaded the fate of eternal anonymity that it nearly suffered.
Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, the ebullient joy of a full-length debut was accompanied by a series of tragedies, as multiple members of the group suffered the losses of their loved ones. Thus the grief, despair and confusion inherent to personal mourning inform the band's first full effort, also accounting for the morbid nomenclature of the album.
Thus while Funeral is a simply gorgeous album, its beauty is always tempered by a pervasive darkness, a bleak and tenebrous undertone that, when paired with the material on the CD, evokes visions of post-apocalyptic devastation and desolate, arctic wastelands. Navigating the wintry landscapes conjured on Funeral demonstrates just how potent the marriage of beauty and heartache can be, resulting in an experience that's doubtless cathartic for both the artists and the audience.
Arcade Fire are one of those rare groups that can merge unbridled artistic ambition with genuine human emotion without compromising or diluting either element, negotiating this balance with a deftness and precision that never betrays the relative inexperience of the band.
While Funeral sometimes rocks, that's never a goal in and of itself; rather, Arcade Fire assume whatever form will best serve to express themselves, shifting styles to accommodate whatever the situation demands from them.
Funeral is indeed a work of tortured beauty, an emotionally taxing musical odyssey that never injects a note of levity into the proceedings to grant the listener a temporary reprieve, no matter how brief. Given this pervasive, unwavering seriousness it's unsurprising that the songs are nearly always sweeping and epic in both form and delivery. While one might surmise that this renders the music bloated and self-important, in the best tradition of myriad U2 classics the material truly merits this bombastic approach, adroitly complementing the songs with elaborate arrangements, sincere soaring vocals and an atmosphere that elevates the tone of the tracks to something akin to biblical oration.
The reason that this all works is quite simple and predictable, namely that Arcade Fire have fulfilled the latent promise that they had exhibited one year earlier on their self-titled debut EP. The songwriting on Funeral is nearly immaculate, with a parade of deeply moving, catchy and well-performed classics. Songs of this nature demand this kind of defiantly rousing, anthemic delivery to realize their full potential, and while some could decry this straight-faced emotional honesty as hopelessly sappy and sentimental or dismiss this experimental artiness as self-indulgent or pretentious, the final product is so rewarding and powerful that these concerns can easily be dispelled for those with even a low threshold for art-rock or transparently emotional music.
The centerpiece of the album is the four-part Neighborhood suite, and it's also one of the greatest musical achievements in recent memory. While this multipart saga chronicles truly universal, epic events, it still remains a deeply personal, intimate tale, establishing a rapport with the listener that transcends the end-of-civilization panoramas depicted in songs like Tunnels and penetrates directly to one's emotional core.
Taken individually each of the Neighborhood chapters is a masterpiece of modern music, but collectively they compose a truly breathtaking sonic spectacle, a work of such depth and emotion that it can't help but envelop the listener in its tragic tableau.
The countless emotional and intellectual reactions that the album elicits succeed because they're all facilitated through the medium of fantastic melodies, with a surprisingly diverse palette that ensures that the CD never grows monotonous. The Neighborhood suite would be stripped of its power if Tunnels wasn't a work of bewitching beauty filled with achingly gorgeous vocals and an intricate arrangement, if Laika wasn't a moody, edgy number with a plethora of catchy hooks courtesy of Butler's delivery, if the hit single Power Out wasn't an unmitigated classic that blends rock music with soaring vocal melodies and a manic electricity or if 7 Kettles wasn't a solemn, understated opus of tremendous force and power. The Neighborhood suite works because it's built on the foundation of this incredible songwriting and its masterful, complex arrangements, transfiguring what could have degenerated into a desultory fit of masturbatory excess into a focused, meticulously constructed work of art.
There's far more to Funeral than the Neighborhood suite, however. While the remaining songs can't compete with four-part epic in terms of scope or sheer grandeur, the album is devoid of filler, and each track has something worthwhile to offer. Highlights include Crown Of Love, a beautiful, haunting ballad, the superb Rebellion (Lies) with its rougher, edgier tone and texture, and Wake Up, a composition so ambitious that the band recruited four additional musicians to play on it.
Thus Funeral is a modern day masterpiece, a work of boundless artistic ambition and emotional potency. It's truly remarkable that any band could pen a debut of this richness and depth, as Funeral resonates with a maturity and sense of purpose that normally isn't encountered until later in a band's lifespan. Furthermore, as the group's EP had indicated, Arcade Fire have a truly unique sound that differentiates them from virtually every other act on the indies. These elements converge to create a stunning artistic triumph and one of the finest works of the new millennium.
Never apt to bask in the limelight, Arcade Fire responded to their newfound stardom not by reveling in luxurious decadence but rather by retreating to a church in Quebec to record their sophomore effort, Neon Bible. While much of the actual recording was conducted outside said church (the full-fledged orchestra that accompanies the band on certain tracks probably would have posed a spatial quandary were the group to attempt to do otherwise), I still wouldn't qualify this eccentric decision as a stunt or gimmick, merely a reflection of Arcade Fire's determination to truly focus on their work as art as opposed to heading to a fancy studio in the United States to churn out another mega-hit complete with radio-friendly cuts and an array of instant singles.
While hardly challenging or inaccessible, Neon Bible doesn't conform to one's standard conception of a commercial album, so by no means do Arcade Fire sound as if they're composing with the Billboard charts in mind. Admittedly this was true of Funeral as well, which didn't impede the album's ascension to the top of the commercial heap, but it's still refreshing that the band didn't allow their surprising success to influence their approach to rock music.
Thus Neon Bible never panders, nor is it a retread of its predecessor, but most importantly Arcade Fire haven't relinquished their defining trait, namely a healthy level of artistic and intellectual ambition. Admittedly the band has never been stunning in the lyrical department, with the occasional lapse of taste leading to simplistic platitudes and irksome pretentiousness, but as far as music is concerned the group is as daring as ever, experimenting with intricate arrangements and elaborate orchestration. Where the band's intellectual pretensions fail in terms of lyrics they thrive when it comes to complex compositions and multipart epics, retaining the commitment to artistry that characterized the material on Funeral and, before that even, shone through on their breakthrough eponymous EP.
There's little on Neon Bible that achieves the depth or potency of the Neighborhood suite, but nevertheless the band are still in top form, with Butler and Chassagne in full flight as songwriters. The opener Black Mirror is a tenebrous opus that boasts a strong melody and sinister undertones, while the bouncy menace of Keep The Car Running has few analogs in the band's catalogue and sounds all the better for it.
The title track is a drab, middling effort that has a tendency to drag despite its short length, but the band redeem themselves with the (forgivably bloated) church organ led Intervention and the fan-polarizing two-parter Black Wave/Bad Vibrations. The controversy surrounding the latter stems from the fact that the first section is dominated by Chassagne's acquired-taste vocals whereas the second section is a superb Butler-led ominous anthem. While I certainly prefer the second half, I'm still fond of the first section as well; I'll concede that Chassagne needs to develop her vocals to the point that she can no longer be dismissed as a Bjork knockoff, but I believe that she's made definite strides in that department, investing her part of the song with some genuine emotional force and resonance.
Unfortunately there are times when the group substitute beauty and raw emotion for melody, like on the otherwise bewitching Ocean Of Noise; while I find that perfectly acceptable in moderation, if the group rely on it too much and begin to employ it as a crutch then it poses a definite danger for the band as a whole.
The Well And The Lighthouse is a rare showcase for the wedded duo as a duet; Chassagne's part is certainly limited, but it illustrates that there's a magnificent vocal chemistry between the band's founders, serving to enhance an already catchy, well-written number.
(Antichrist Television Blues) justifies its comparatively longer length and idiosyncratic title with a compelling melody while Windowsill is a lesser tune yet still far from bad, but the album truly peaks with a revamped version of the band's debut EP's magnum opus, No Cars Go. While the track was still superb in the height of its lo-fi, instrumentally limited glory, its true potential wasn't revealed until this meticulously crafted and produced incarnation that appears on Neon Bible. Furthermore, this time around the song has the benefit of an entire orchestra to add new and unpredictable dimensions to a track that had felt fleshed out even with only a sparse arrangement and inexpensive production.
The album concludes with the eloquent despair of My Body Is A Cage. The track has a highly effective slow-burn, from its initial moody minimalism to the hauntingly eldritch arrangement that imbues the song with a raw, visceral power that transcends the track's lyrical limitations.
Thus Neon Bible is a superb second outing for Arcade Fire. It can't quite measure up to the majestic grandeur of the band's full-length debut, lacking the epic feel and catharsis-inducing emotion that defined Funeral (not to mention Neon Bible's noticeable inferiority in the melody department), but it's still a stellar achievement, and by all means a product that the Canadian ensemble can be proud of.
'Commercial breakthrough' is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot amongst rock aficionados, but despite the term's ubiquity it refers to a very complicated, perplexing phenomenon. Invariably some thrasonical individuals will profess to understand what leads to a commercial breakthrough, desperately attempting to subject the incomprehensible to some sort of pseudo-mathematical equation. Nevertheless, no matter what kind of order or rubric one attempts to apply to this proverbial ascension into the mainstream, there will be countless exceptions that prove the inadequacy of such wrongheaded and misguided explanations.
The defining trait of a commercial breakthrough is its suddenness, and this has led many a reviewer to reach the conclusion that because a breakthrough occurs suddenly, this suddenness must be caused by a radical change or transformation in the group itself. This is often quite accurate. On many occasions, a group will change directions or embrace new musical values and instantly be propelled to the top of the charts.
This is not always the case, however. Sometimes a band will plod along with maddening consistency and eventually have their efforts rewarded through no change or development of their own. Obviously countless brilliant groups in similar predicaments have been consigned to irrevocable anonymity, with no financial prospects worth mentioning, but even so there are cases where endless toil will end with a fluke discovery.
Fans, however, will often lose sight of this fact, declaring that just because a group is experiencing a commercial breakthrough they must have sold out. Even if a band has in no way modified its style, the mere reality of a newfound profitability will prove sufficient to incense said group's fanbase to the point of self-righteous mutiny.
Such is the case for Arcade Fire, a revered indie rock group that has had the gall to penetrate the Billboard's top ten. The album that perpetrated this iniquity is The Suburbs, an LP that is in no way more commercial or accessible than any of Arcade Fire's other works. The album does not pander to a more mainstream crowd. It doesn't introduce over-production. It doesn't embrace modern fads. It doesn't emphasize pop hooks to the exclusion of depth and artistry. It's simply a great album, much as the stylistically similar Funeral and Neon Bible were. No one decried those seminal LPs as being too commercial. The Suburbs, however, enjoyed far more mainstream success than its predecessors, and for that reason and that reason alone myriad Arcade Fire fans have unleashed their vitriol at the expense of an album that they'd be better off listening to and enjoying, as they doubtless would were it not for the insidious financial success of the CD in question.
Even if The Suburbs was a sell-out on some obscure and oblique level, this would do little to diminish the sheer brilliance of the album. The LP is a concept album that focuses on the innate isolation, apathy and ennui of day-to-day suburban life. It's telling that this depiction of suburbia is just as harrowing as the band's portrayal of desolate wastelands on Funeral's epic Neighborhood suite. In the world of The Suburbs, meaningful connection is as problematic as navigating glacial tunnels, while bitter disillusionment is as catastrophic as a post-apocalyptic power outage.
While these ruminations on heady topics are far from profound, they are animated by a guiding intelligence that makes it difficult to dismiss them as pretentious, angst-ridden drivel. The caliber of Arcade Fire's lyrics is slowly but steadily improving, and grounding the band's philosophical meanderings in a more real and urgent context adds extra potency and immediacy to their impact.
It's the music, however, that's the real attraction. Arcade Fire's soundscapes have always relied on beauty and emotional resonance, and in these departments The Suburbs does not disappoint. The album is strongly moving, and I'm even willing to attribute a part of this emotional connection to the lyrics. These lyrics would appear lifeless and inert on a sheet, but the way they intersect with the tender, gorgeous melodies enables them to transcend their limitations and truly convey something of worth to the listener.
Furthermore, the album is imbued with a healthy amount of diversity. The Suburbs features an array of styles, offering everything from rockers to ballads to singer-songwriter confessionals. These genre shifts never compromise the cohesion of the album's concept, as each mode feels like an organic extension of the issues at hand.
Highlights abound. The title track seems like a poor choice for a first single, but it's still a terrific opener that merges melancholy and nostalgia in a way that seems perfectly natural, making it all the more unnerving. Suburban War may be the apex of the album's conceptual side, yet it's just as strong in terms of musical substance. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is an energetic rocker that has an almost eighties flavor, and the track finds Chassagne in top form as a singer, eschewing Bjork imitations in favor of ethereal vocal grace.
Admittedly having the closer be a heart-wrenching reprise of the opener is something of a cliché by now, in both the world of rock and even show tunes, yet this in no way undermines the potency of The Suburbs (continued). The entire album is profoundly emotionally taxing, and even if it's a derivative trick or gimmick this reprise is the perfect moment of emotional release to cap off a truly moving experience.
Thus The Suburbs is an exceptional follow-up to the already impressive duo of Funeral and Neon Bible, a terrific marriage of masterful songwriting and adroit arrangements. The album is indeed quite ambitious, but it manages to fulfill nearly all of its lofty goals.
It's hard to imagine reacting so emotionally to a sell-out, and it's rare that pandering features such musical range and complexity. The truth is that even simply plodding ahead with their modestly brilliant fare, Arcade Fire have stumbled across commercial success; they certainly deserve it, which can partially be attributed to the fact that they've done nothing whatsoever to pursue it.