Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Arcade Fire Is Worthy of All That Praise

I finally saw for myself, and all I had heard was true; Arcade Fire is indeed extraordinary. They deserve every accolade that each new album, each breathtaking live performance, yields. Whatever one may feel about their sound, they are, irrefutably, a band that stands head and shoulders above contemporaries in quality of artistic expression and the pure joy that radiates from their stage performance. While their songs document the angst of a generation, their live performance reminds us that life happens in this exhilarating moment, as we sing and dance with friends and strangers.

Sometimes blatantly, sometimes inadvertently, rock and pop music provide a cultural account of a given time and place. Some popular music serves only for entertainment, providing escape and frivolity, while offering clues about the collective mindset of a particular time (think Disco). But, it is the music that is purposeful in its social documentation that we typically consider “art.” Artists survey the cultural landscape, challenge us to face what we may instinctively turn from, and create beautiful and poetic starting points for discussion. Remarkably, Arcade Fire does not sacrifice any of the entertainment value of their music by filling it with provocative themes. They successfully marry the frivolous and the somber, the whimsical and the weighty, becoming this generation’s most socially conscience “art” band in which people actually want to listen.

With the release of Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, they have solidified themselves as the rock and roll documentarians of this era. The band has packed more meaningful commentary into a single album than most artists convey in a lifetime of work. It is stunning, honest, and heartbreakingly pinpoints the collective anxiety of a generation that is economically unsettled and missing a sense of community in the midst of a hyper-connected digital age.

As someone who came into social and political awareness before social media networks became our communication, before the 24-hour news cycle became our information, and before reality television became our entertainment, I understand the sentiment conveyed by lyricist Win Butler on this album. He indirectly asks these questions: Have we lost our attention span for thoughtful discourse (“We Used to Wait”)? Have computers stripped us of meaningful human connection with one another (“Deep Blue”)? Is a cultural gap between the “modern kids” and older cohorts widening (“Rococo”)?

I use to write. I used to write letters. I used to sign my name. I used to sleep at night before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain. –“We Used To Wait”

Often presented as a foreboding dream - the word “dream” occurs consistently throughout the album - songs follow themes of lonely detachment in the modern age, environmental doom, the decay of the middle class suburbs, and a longing for a simpler era. Even though the album alludes to profound concerns about the direction we are heading, it is written from a personal voice and an inclusive viewpoint. Therefore, it does not come off in the least bit preachy or self-righteous. It is observational, even confessional, and the sadness and longing in the songs precludes it from feeling activist or political.

Can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before this damage is done.
–“The Suburbs”

The shift in tone from the Neon Bible album to The Suburbs, with respect the theme of capitalist greed, is notable. Released in 2007 to a climate of mounting frustration with Bush-era politics, Neon Bible was a call to arms for the citizenry to wise up to, among other things, the dangerous marriage of government and big business. I would not label Arcade Fire an activist band, but there was unmistakable anger and frustration in Neon Bible, with traces of finger pointing. However, the introspective nature of the new album suggests that Win Butler no longer relates to the problems he sees from the outsider perspective he took on Neon Bible. It would seem that maturity and a few years of self-reflection between albums has led him to take ownership of the problems around him, even if they are not his alone to bear. Ultimately, this makes the message more relatable.

You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount. I used to think I was not like them but I'm beginning to have my doubts. –“City With No Children”

For all the seriousness embedded in Arcade Fire songs, their live show is the most joyful outpouring of energy I have witnessed, both by the band and from the audience. Looking down at the stage, it seemed like the band members were bright and colorful wind-up dolls, dancing and playing with exaggerated whole-body movements. Each owned all parts of the stage as they switched instruments and remained dynamic throughout the entire set. Regine Chassagne is particularly magnetic in stage presence, as too is Will Butler; both showing amazing energy as they played a multitude of instruments and danced around the stage (or in Will’s case, ran through the audience with his drum).

From the opening song until the unbelievable closer, “Wake Up,” the audience was on its feet chanting the words and clapping the beats. I had heard for years that an Arcade Fire show was a truly unique experience; what made it special was the feeling that those musicians wanted nothing more in that moment than to be playing for us. Arcade Fire is a band that clearly loves making music together, and they would be giving the same enthusiasm playing to a house full of guests as to a stadium full of concertgoers. It is not often that you walk away from a show feeling honored to have bared witness to a performance, but that is how I felt leaving the show that night.

I’ll leave you with links to a fantastic BBC Culture Show documentary on Arcade Fire, which includes live clips and an interview. It is a couple of years old, from the release of the Neon Bible album, but it is well made and really captures the spirit of the band. I hope you enjoy these watching this short documentary, and also hope you have the opportunity to catch their phenomenal live show!


BBC The Culture Show Documentary: Part 1

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 (Thanks @jennyhaze!)