The second reason for their oddness is the manner in which they have become popular, namely, by writing the same song in a number of different ways. All of their records revolve around the theme of growing up and how difficult it is to do. But! Arcade Fire are the only band to do what they do, and they do it weirdly; they get away with it because the songs are so good that it doesn't really matter when the themes are ubiquitous.
The eight membered clan-like band are fronted by the 6’4 friendly Texan giant, Win Butler, and his French Canadian wife, Régine Chassagne. The other members comprise of indie rock legend Richard Reed Perry, Jeremy Gara, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Nuefeld, Marika Anthony-Shaw, and Will Butler (brother to Win). Arcade Fire are, with the exception of Chassagne, transplanted Americans living in Canada. They emerged from the freezing Montreal winter into the slightly milder winter around the rest of the world in 2004, with their debut full length, Funeral.
Funeral is a strange little record. It is myth-like, in a Grimm’s fairytale sort of way, nostalgic yet macabre; similar to the origin of the band’s name, of which Butler explains, ‘It's not a rumour, it's based on a story that someone told me. It's not an actual event, but one that I took to be real. I would say that it's probably something that the kid made up, but at the time I believed him.’[Christian Hoard, The Fire This Time, in Rolling Stone (24-02-2005)] The songs on the ten-track record range from a cacophony of triumph and catharsis, to ornate, baroque-esque quietness and despair. With this concoction of themes and styles the album manages to sound morbid and hopeful at the same time.
Neon Bible is the band’s second album, released to critical and commercial acclaim in 2007. If Funeral was about innocence, running away and growing up, then Neon Bible is about what happens afterwards: paranoia, and the dark realities of adulthood. It is an assault on the socio-political state of America during the Bush era, from the safe and liberal vantage point of the band’s adopted home in Montreal, Canada. Neon Bible carries forth the theme of being an outsider, and is clearly influenced by Orwell and Springsteen’s blue collar ethos. There is a frank, ‘them vs. us’, or ‘lions and lambs’ (from The Well and The Lighthouse) tone noted throughout.
The record is like a war cry, with references to soldiers on both sides, and rebel yells, ‘Hey!’, from the band of outsiders. It’s a beacon of light calling on like-minded people who have been kept quiet throughout the destruction of their country by means of an unwanted war, television, and religious propaganda. Butler intermingles the three so that television becomes the focus for devotion, religion becomes a product for profit, and the war on the record becomes a bludgeon against the war in the ‘real world’. The lyrics are at times simple, but overall they are stimulating and thoughtful. The album is a call for change: ‘little babies, lets go, women and children, lets go, old folks lets go, don’t know we’re going!’ (No Cars Go)
The Suburbs was released in summer 2010, and is a call back to the themes of childhood and neighbourhood subject on Funeral. I like to group records into seasons, and the The Suburbs is definitely Arcade Fire’s summer record. A record in both senses of the word, it is a musical of Win Butler’s memories of being a teenager in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. It is precise, in the rare case of an adult remembering exactly what it was like to be a teenager, but it is also somewhat blurry and dream-like; loose enough to be anyone’s memories of adolescence. Running through all three records is the reason for Arcade Fire’s continued success: the music is both childlike, but holding onto an adult cynicism; it’s nostalgic but modern; escapist and yet real.
There are arguments all over the internet on whether or not Arcade Fire are actually any good. David Greenwald editor of the L.A Times and founder of Rawkblog recently stated that rock ‘n’ roll should be the answer to the question of human longings, 'instead of an airless, joyless tomb of self-seriousness in which to contemplate them. The real answer to Who is Arcade Fire?!: a band that forget what music is actually for.' While it can definitely be argued that Arcade Fire are self-serious, art-rock poseurs, I disagree that their music is joyless. The (oft-used) chants are cathartic, and from the purgation of aggression or pain, comes joy, or at the very least, satisfaction. Furthermore, I don’t go to music for answers; I don’t expect anyone to have them. I go to music to know that other people are asking the same questions. I go to music to know that other people are longing for the same things. I go to music to know that I'm not alone. To know this is enough.
Last summer, my mother sold the house in which I’d spent my adolescence. As we drove away, Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels) played on the stereo. We approached a red light when Win Butler started singing, ‘But sometimes,/We remember our bedrooms and our parent's bedrooms and the bedrooms of our friends/Then we think of our parents…/Well, whatever happened to them?’ I hadn't put the song on intentionally, but as my mother and I glanced at each other, we both started to cry. We covered our faces from the drivers around us, and sped away through the summer countryside to her new house as Butler sang, ' Purify the colors, purify my mind/And spread the ashes of the colors over this heart of mine!’.
Read more of Emma's writing here.