|Years active:||Genres:||Related artists:|
|2001 -||Alternative rock, indie rock, dance rock||Owen Pallett (link TBC)|
Line-up: Win Butler (lead vocals, guitars, keyboards), Régine Chassagne (co-lead vocals, keyboards, many other things), Richard Reed Parry (guitars, others), Tim Kingsbury (bass), Will Butler (synths, keyboards, miscellanous - up until 2022) and Jeremy Gara (drums, from 2006-ish). Howard Billerman drummed until around 2005. Besides the main cast, there's been a veritable number of collaborators and stagehands who have moved between various stages of formal memberhood throughout the years - most notably Sarah Neufeld (violin) and Owen Pallett (violin, keyboards).
Many people who are better writers than I am have written a lot more about the influence - and importance - of Arcade Fire in better ways than I ever could. I once read a thinkpiece about Funeral which argued the point that it was the last time that the indie rock nation truly united together behind something, before the internet completely fragmented us apart - and there's a grain of truth in that. Arcade Fire’s appearance was like a once-in-a-lifetime event that we all knew was something significant the moment we all first heard Funeral, but I don’t think anyone had any idea just how much of a mark they would leave behind. They changed the idea of indie rock as something scrappy and lo-fi into something that could be epic and richly arranged if it could without losing an inch of its emotional resonance, and it struck such a chord that it broke right into the mainstream. I’m quite positive that it was Arcade Fire’s success that more or less popularised the “millennial whoop”, a mainstay of every turgid crowd-chasing anthem around the 2010s. Not that that’s their fault, of course.
So what's the secret ingredient? What ushered Arcade Fire to become the face of the 2000s indie rock, changing preconceptions of the 'genre' (and I really am using that term vaguely) overnight and spearheading the revolution? Honestly - I think it's the fact they weren't afraid to go big. Prior to Arcade Fire indie rock as an umbrella concept was all about low stakes and grounded production aesthetics: the music was emotional, overwhelmingly and devotedly so at times, but the notion was that you had to have a certain kind of intimacy to make that emotion ring true. So you had scrappy people with scrappy guitars playing scrappy clubs and recording music in studios that were barely beyond home recording environments. Arcade Fire ticked many of those boxes - people nowadays are keen to bring up the Butlers' trust fund kid origins but as a band, this too was a collective of like-minded people with no real connections or aspirations apart from playing music they believed in. But Arcade Fire never wanted to be a small band, they wanted their widescreen emotions to have matching musical scopes. They had violins, horn sections and hurdygurdies as part of their regular line-up, as well as anthemic choruses and shout-along lyric bites to make those choruses worth shouting along to. Arcade Fire were just as vulnerable and open as the bands before them and while their sound was much, much bigger than any of their peers dared to attempt, it sounded authentic: a group of people discovering a warehouse of instruments and creating their own personal chaos with anything they could get their hands on. And they used the size of their music to create a connection not just between them and the fans but within their admirers. Arcade Fire channeled emotions that hit deep in personal levels, but they hit the same way in countless other people and you could find those likeminded followers beside you in concert halls and festivals, turning audience participation into an integral part of the experience. Arcade Fire used their magnificent scope to bring people together and to connect with them.
Despite the past tense all of that is very much still true: that combination of grand theatrics and wanting to connect are the cornerstones of Arcade Fire's music through the years, up until the present day - even as they changed tact and influence along the way. The move from the band-next-door stadium rock into a mishmash of influences that leaned towards all things more electronic, more groove-based, more 'pop' and ultimately less intimate than what they started with is about as iconic as the initial fervour. From a wholly personal standpoint - which is what we're here for - that change hasn't dimmed any of their strengths. The main criticisms levied against the later albums, from the sometimes over-earnest nature to ride-or-die faith in conceptual theatrics or Butler's occasionally clunky lyrics, have been there from day one too. I don't think it's wrong to say that the band lost sight of something as they took ownership of the throne they had been placed on and started speaking in musical languages different from the one used by a group of ragtag Canadians a long time ago in the past - you could absolutely say that the earlier albums have a kind of warmth the later albums lack. But the change never took away those grand musical passages, the spellbinding melodies, the overarching emotional resonance that they could effortlessly tap onto from day one. The language has changed but the message remains the same.
That's a longwinded, roundabout way of saying that this page has been written from the point of view of a person who never felt that Arcade Fire "sold out" or lost their shine when they lost their youthful innocence. Not everything they do is perfect by no means, but they still strike the same chord as they did back in the day when I too was one of the internet younglings caught up in Funeral's tidal wave of revelation and admiration. They're absolutely one of the most seminal bands of the new millennium, if not the most seminal in terms of their surprisingly wide-reaching influence and continued presence, personal preferences nonwithstanding. They mastered the combination of epic and emotional and wielded that sword with passion and ambition the likes of which one rarely experiences.
- 2003: Arcade Fire EP
- 2004: Funeral
- 2007: Neon Bible
- 2010: The Suburbs
- 2013: Reflektor
- 2017: Everything Now
- 2022: WE
ARCADE FIRE EP
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2003||7||"Old Flame", "I'm Sleeping in a Submarine", "Headlights Look Like Diamonds"|
1) Old Flame; 2) I'm Sleeping in a Submarine; 3) No Cars Go; 4) The Woodlands National Anthem; 5) My Heart Is an Apple; 6) Headlights Look Like Diamonds; 7) Vampire/Forest Fire
Hard to call this the meager beginnings given how big this sounds at times, but in the AF scale of things it's the humble beginnings.
You can already hear it on this humble debut EP, which likely wouldn't get half the attention it's received if it wasn't for the album that followed, that Arcade Fire operate on Big Ideas and they were reaching for a Big Sound to go with them from the get-go. As far as low-key debuts go, the Arcade Fire EP (or Us Kids Know, as I've sometimes heard it called) is more ambitious than most, and certainly one of the more bombastic. Part of what makes Funeral so special and Arcade Fire such a force overall is the combination of personal songwriting with a decidedly anthemic sound you can sing along to with your brethren crowds; that goal has been there from the start, and in a lot of ways this is like a prototype for Funeral. Just cosier and less dynamic.
At this stage the big ideas are coming from a relatively inexperienced band who sound like they're recording this at their own home, and the general recording aesthetic matches this. Where Funeral would feature a quadrilogy of songs about a neighbourhood getting snowed in, the cuts here sound like what you'd expect from a band holed up inside a room during the cold winter. The tip-toe shuffling and piano-twirling "I'm Sleeping in a Submarine" and the world-weary"Heart Is an Apple" are natural born torchlight moments with an "(Acoustic)" tag tacked onto them, and "The Woodlands National Anthem" is mostly built around just vocals, an acoustic guitar and some assorted handclaps and random percussion, but it still sounds like there's an intent to fill the entire room with its sound. It's a band dreaming to be big yet not quite having the setup to go all the way, but they're doing the best they can with what they do have and that will goes a long way: even with the stakes lowered there's still a kind of grandeur to these could-be anthems.
The intensity that Arcade Fire are famous for is also present here already, and the best songs of the EP reflect that. Both "Old Flame" and "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" are high-speed and high-energy, the group putting their all into a couplet of songs that rush through with the joy and thrill of a new band finding their wings. "Old Flame" is a great way to kick off the EP, full of drama with its accordion and strings raising the wind in its pounding rhythm, but "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" is absolutely the highlight of the entire EP, Both guitar and glockenspiel riffs that are instantly imprinted in your head, a strong backbone of a thumping beat that explodes into a flurry as the vocals go crazy, and the inspired flicking between the tightening hook of the verses and the flood-like rush of sheer vibrant joy that is the chorus - it's the anthem the rest of the EP has paved the way for. At the end of the the journey the band lift off and become genuinely huge with the colossal crescendo of "Vampire/Forest Fire", starting out as a decisively moody americana ballad with synths and growing in intensity from thereon into a wall of sound where you get a glimpse of the furious show force the band would become famous for on stage.
That's kind of what you can expect from the EP - familiar traits but with a more grassroots tone. The anthemic heights are there, the expanded instrumentation beyond the usual rock band sounds rears its head frequently and both Butler and Chassagne's vocals have already found their signature tones (and Chassagne practically takes co-lead vocals throughout the EP). If you heard this before the band had released anything else, I imagine it would've been quite stunning; and even now, in a world where one will likely come to this after hearing most of the other releases, it's still plenty enjoyable even if the songwriting isn't quite the perfect sharpness yet. The only slight disappointment here is the somewhat flaccid version of "No Cars Go", a song that would go on to become one of the band's defining songs some years later when re-recorded for Neon Bible; and I guess that's likely the only reason it sounds disappointing because the version here already has many of the same ideas that would carry over to the re-recording, it just doesn't sound quite as regal and gorgeously gigantic as the later version does. It does beg the question if any of the other songs here would suffer from the same had they been recreated with a more refined touch later on, and I've definitely made amends with it over the years, but even acknowledging that it still feels a little off in that familiar-but-not-quite way.
Besides that, it's hard to really fault this, even if it's hard to praise it to high heavens either in the overall context of the Arcade Fire back catalogue. The Arcade Fire playing here are still an unrefined version of themselves, full of fire but occasionally uneven: as a first ever recording it's great and humongously inspired, but it's also obvious it's more of a launch board for future achievements than a completely realised work on its own. Still, the songs are good and occasionally honestly great, and you can detect traces of Funeral's magic throughout - it's almost like a more intimate flipside for that album. The band likely never imagined this would continue to have the kind of widespread release it does but I'm glad it's had the relative longevity, even if among the hardcore perhaps, because it's still a worthwhile listen.
Physically: Gatefold with a fold-out lyrics sheet.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2004||9||"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", "Wake Up", "Rebellion (Lies)"|
1) Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels); 2) Neighborhood #2 (Laïka); 3) Une année sans lumiere; 4) Neighborhood #3 (Power Out); 5) Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles); 6) Crown of Love; 7) Wake Up; 8) Haiti; 9) Rebellion (Lies); 10) In the Backseat
The triumphant sound of a small army of passionate Canadians who molded the musical landscape in the wake of their life-affirming anthems. Bombast, grandeur and so much heart.
The liner notes for Funeral point out the irony of a band giving their debut album such a name, like they anticipated every music writer rife to point it out and wanted to one-up them from the start. But as final as funerals are, they bring people together, everyone sharing their experiences of the life now lost in a tragic form of celebration. At least, that's the case for this Funeral which is closer to an embracing welcome to everyone who has joined the occasion. So many albums unknowingly connect countless complete strangers who all find an emotional grip point in someone else's music, all of them feeling like they have a private connection to these records, but that notion is pushed onto the forefront and made obvious on Funeral. It's moved away from private bedrooms of music fanatics and out into the open giant fields to be shared with everyone else who feels the same way, shouting their voices raw into the sky together with the musicians themselves.
Funeral set the indie scene for the 00s. In the decade prior 'indie music' (vague notion as it is), and particularly of the North American kind, was frequently characterised by its low-key nature. Small bands in small practice rooms and dingy stages creating songs that were rough around the edges but who embraced that sound, turning it into a rugged warmth that could capture the hearts of the select people who'd ever get to hear it. Funeral changed the tide in such an obvious fashion you could directly hear it already as little as a year later. Rather than remain in the shade with a couple of scrappy guitars in tow, Arcade Fire utilised every instrument they could get their hands on, single-handedly making squeezeboxes and glockenspiels sexy in the process. Their music and the band themselves were earnest, sometimes even overtly so, but it didn't stop them from dreaming big and sounding big. Each song is built to a crescendo and it's only a matter of time before they launch into an anthem that needed to roar in ever-bigger stages to an increasing amount of people, but without ever losing touch of the intimately speaking core within. Funeral wants to connect universally, and it did - critics and music fans gilded it a classic in record time, countless new bands were inspired overnight to reach for those same heights and much of the indie landscape changed its scope to match, and when those same elements were recycled by artists with more of a mainstream presence, the chart forces reacted similarly. We likely wouldn't have the now-infamous millennial whoop without Funeral showcasing how powerful a wordless chant can be in the right hands.
The universality of Funeral derives from its desire to build a community and to cherish the one you belong to. It's a record spearheaded by two immigrants finding their future, and each other, in a new country and pushing through hard times and tragedies together and with their new blood brethren, with music which radiates that power to connect. Throughout Funeral there's traces of everything that built its DNA: Win Butler standing in-between his native USA and familiar Canada as both an insider and an outsider, Regine Chassagne's Haitian roots tangled up in the country's history, vague memories of spending harsh winters and power cuts together with people you trust, and goodbyes and farewells to all the loved ones who passed away during the album's recording, inspiring the title. Funeral has one of its feet deep in a contemplative sadness, but the other foot is leaping towards the light. It's an album full of hope, its strengths based on people who stay by with you through and through, with that optimism conveyed as call for everyone to come together. And so, when the numerous bunch of wild Canadians all shout out lyrics of these memories together in a way that would spawn numerous audience reactions, the resulting bombast is not just something that speaks directly to one's heart, but also something that beckons to be shared. Intimate and universal, without ever compromising either.
The communal warmth is the heart of Funeral, but its arteries that bring that notion forward are the songs. It's not an exaggeration to say that every single one of them is an anthem, and it's not a question of if they become grandstanding torchlight moments, but when: "Wake Up" explodes from the get-go, "Une année sans lumiere" and "Crown of Love" flick the switch towards their end like a curveball twist which feels so natural in hindsight, "Rebellion (Lies)" builds itself up for its whole length. Funeral's magic isn't directly in that all the songs are gigantic, but rather how and why they are. "Anthem" can be a dirty word for some, bringing into mind empty stadium pomp and circumstance that simply sounds big without a reason for it to be so. But on Funeral these larger-than-life songs are so because for their four-five minutes, they yearn to be the most important lifeline in the world. If not for the listener, then certainly very audibly for Arcade Fire themselves, whose vigour in these performances can practically be touched.
The thing is, they all do feel important - they're a series of songs that quiet down the rest of the world as they play out. "Tunnels" joins the pantheon of iconic openers which gradually introduces each element that will become familiar as the album moves forward, from the group vocals to the expansive instrumentation, strikingly four-to-the-floor drums and the ever-present strings, the soaring vocal lines. "Laika" and "Power Out" are fueled by urgency, with the latter in particular playing like the band's lives depend on it and it becomes a frantic rush of adrenaline through its jagged guitars and almost jubilant percussion riff playing behind the panicked band. "Crown of Love" and "In the Backseat" are the tearjerkers, one a vulnerable declaration of desire which moves from tender confessions to the dance floor as the lovers grab onto each other in a fleeting moment of passion, the other a harrowing ode to the emptiness of losing someone where the album's title finally becomes literal, giving the album a closure where it's now sorrow that sounds colossal and anthemic. The famous, magnificent burst to life of the wordless chorus of "Wake Up" is the actual sound of personal liberation and the song itself is the center of all the album's defiant optimism and zeal; and Butler closing the second verse with the impassioned "I guess I just have to adjust" is arguably the entire album's signature moment. "Haiti" and "Une année sans lumiere" are calm, collected and carefully chill - they're also Regine's spotlight moments, with a graceful and delicate touch that's more about mood-building than big choruses; at least until the songs lift off towards their end. "Rebellion (Lies)" is still, and perhaps always will be, Arcade Fire's grandest statement: a spell-binding five minutes of building an entire world over a single strong backbone rhythm, everyone's performance gradually tightening as the song keeps shifting gears upwards, culminating in one of the all-time great call-and-answer hooks. As the song winds down, it sounds victorious: all that blood, sweat and desperate tears having been spent but emerging as a winner, the pounding drums and epic strings forever still ringing in one's ears even after the song has ended.
It's only "7 Kettles" that lets the album down. On an album full of big moments a more traditionally intimate near-acoustic palate cleanser sounds like a fine idea, but where the rest of Funeral is a celebration of instantly powerful melodies and standout performances, the rather muted feel and easily forgettable songwriting of "7 Kettles" has never had the chance to particularly stand out. Without it, Funeral would be a perfect score - and even with it, it comes close. It's an album so honest with its emotions and power to resonate that you can't really be surprised when it does tug your heartstrings, lifts your spirits and places itself as part of your life by intertwining its tunes with your own experiences. For all its backstory and context, ultimately the main story it tells is its listener's: how each song still gets the hairs on your body to rise in awe as the swooning sounds play through the speakers, how every grand chorus feels as revelatory as it did the first time and even more important than it did then, how every rush of energy jolts through your body and tells you to join in as it reminds of all the past times that force was something you needed to get through the day. Ultimately Funeral is about life: both through its vignettes of personal stories that the band share as well as, and more notably, through the sheer power of the music that affirms just how vital and vibrant life is.
Physically: Gatefold with a fold-out lyrics sheet, identical in design to the self-titled EP as if to pair the two up. The scribble line from the pen in the cover art is silver-embossed and runs through the back cover and inner fold, which is rather inspired.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2007||10||"Intervention", "No Cars Go", "My Body Is a Cage"|
1) Black Mirror; 2) Keep the Car Running; 3) Neon Bible; 4) Intervention; 5) Black Wave/Bad Vibrations; 6) Ocean of Noise; 7) The Well and the Lighthouse; 8) (Antichrist Television Blues); 9) Windowsill; 10) No Cars Go; 11) My Body Is a Cage
Apocalyptic bombast. Arcade Fire hear people talk about their epic sound and decide that yes, we can top that.
Funeral was a record of skyscraping anthems which stole people's hearts at large, but it came from a grounded setting: it was music by a group of ordinary people escaping shared sorrow through communal celebration, manifested into something larger than all of them combined. I don’t think Arcade Fire necessarily meant to make it so colossal, it just shaped up that way through the combined power of a collective of multi-instrumentalists putting all of their hearts behind the music. But the size of their sound became Arcade Fire’s shtick: their songs became synonymous with the rapturous joy of hundreds or thousands of individuals singing along to every wordless melody, strings and bells and whistles in tow.
On the other hand Neon Bible, the direct follow-up to Funeral, is a giant by design. The crowd-raiser moments are grander, the choruses bellow out bigger and the drama fuelling them is more intense, and it’s the clearest in the production. Neon Bible's crescendoing walls of sound are made up of layers upon layers of elements that expand far beyond the capacities of the band themselves: there’s choirs, there’s orchestras, there’s the booming church organ that’s become the album’s signature sound even though it only appears in two songs. A lot of the hyper-awareness to a wider concept and unifying design which has become second nature for the band (for the chagrin of some) started to pop up at this stage as well, with unified dress codes, cryptic teaser trailers and running threads through the otherwise unrelated lyrics. This was Arcade Fire intentionally going big, extending their reach far beyond Funeral's scope as if to prove they deserved to be one of the biggest acts of the Pitchforkverse. The message of Neon Bible went the same route and also took a leap further from the personal drama of its predecessor, as it cast its sights into the wider world. It’s not subtle about its message - “not much chance of survival if the Neon Bible is right” - and its delivered with the fire of an apocalyptic preacher shouting at the masses about the end of the world. Funeral was a happy accident of circumstances - Neon Bible was made from the ground up to be a bombastic show of force, a band trying to direct their own hype by amplifying what they understood made them special the first time around.
As a direct result there's a kind of po-faced self-awareness and intentional seriousness around Neon Bible. “Black Mirror” kicks off the album like a cult leader summoning forth the titular device to reflect on the doom and gloom of the world, and from thereon in the album conjures another apocalyptic theme after another. Greed, war, delusion, personal disillusionment, religious hypocrisy; even the moments of escapism sound uncertain, like when the “let’s go” rallying calls of “No Cars Go” are undercut with a quiet “don’t know where we’re going...” just as the music switches gears. It’s clear Win Butler wants to be a spokesperson for Important Things and though he’s not always successful (for every insight he makes, he throws out a clunker like “MTV, what have you done to me?”), he’s absolutely earnest about his intentions. His power as a frontman - and to the same extent Regine Chassagné's power as his vocal counterpart - is the undoubting passion and sincerity he brings into his ideas and performance, and the conviction and zeal which made the personal anecdotes of Funeral so strong are just as powerful here. If Butler is preachy, then he’s the kind of preacher who can charm a crowd to eat up every single warning of fire and brimstone he can shout out. And this time he’s come armed with the sound most overwhelming: out of all Arcade Fire albums, Neon Bible leans heaviest into the innate epic theatrics of the band.
I have an unabashed, probably uncool love for music that sounds massive. It doesn't suit everything and it's not a surefire way to win my praise, but my heart does often flutter with honest awe when steady build-ups explode into epic finales: I'm the guy who will predictably love all those epic closer songs hovering around ends of tracklists, smiling as the fireworks and production credits explode during the credits roll. Neon Bible is, basically, one such moment after another, with everything but the title track (which is a quiet, two-minute rumination that's more characteristic of an interlude) going gigantic at least once during its course, sometimes several times in different ways. It has its musical vision set to the absolute maximum, the epic finales of Funeral turned into full songs. And it never fails, because Arcade Fire are geniuses in this game. Neon Bible may put on the guise of serious doom mongering, but in practice it's a thrill ride: joy and anxiety holding hands and riding a tidal wave of production elements and elaborate arrangements, moving from one instrumental high to another, everyone hollering and encouraging the listener to join. The lyrical concepts accompanying the music may falter from time to time from scaling up, but in the song department the band score perfect strikes in a fearsomely consistent fashion.
The reason I love big bombastic finales so much is because when executed properly, they are incredibly cathartic - they explicitly pull out those big emotions out of you and give them the ability to spread their wings with the music, making you feel that nothing matters in this world but the very moment you're connecting with right now. But you need the right kind of song to go with it, and there isn't a single track on Neon Bible that doesn't hit that mark, so much so that reading through the tracklist becomes a catalogue of moments in time when I've been overwhelmed by the Great Big Feeling that they coaxed out: the communal hand-clap hullaballoo of "Keep the Car Running", the liberating freak-out breakdown splicing through the hyper-rockabilly of "(Antichrist Television Blues)", the swelling feels that sweep in as the band on "Windowsill" are drowned by the choir and wipe away the memories of the lyric about MTV, the "Un! Deux! Trois! Dis miroir noir!" in "Black Mirror", the technicolour light of the blissed-out chorus to "The Well and the Lighthouse", the tone flip when the bright "Black Wave" morphs into "Black Vibrations" and the song feels the pressure of the shadow of the great all-drowning sea looming over it. They are wonderful songs through and through full of hooks and melodies that live on, that funnel their powers towards a singular point until they burst in ecstatic magic.
The greatest showcase for the power of the album’s arrangements lies towards the end. “No Cars Go” was first released on the band’s debut EP, but it's an awkward fit there: a good idea begging for an execution that doesn't leave it limping across the floor. Here, it's been brought back and resurrected into the colossus it aspired to be. Every single second of it goes off - each swoon of its strings, each voice in the choir, each underpinning note of the horn section, the completely superlative breakdown following its second chorus that is one of purest expressions of joy in music I've heard. It’s potentially the most bombastic Arcade Fire have ever been but it deserves to be larger than life, and it sounds so, so gorgeous in this final form: it's the ideal behind every life-affirming moment that was heard on Funeral, gilded and tangible. It's the natural peak for Neon Bible's multi-faceted journey, and following it up with something else in the tracklist seems like a surefire way to be let down by context, but "My Body Is a Cage" defies any expectations you'd set for it subconsciously. What you'd expect for a fitting follow-up to "No Cars Go" to close the record would be to attempt to scale its epic heights even further, or do something completely contrasting, and so "My Body Is a Cage" does both. It's the album's darkest moment, the neon shades of the bible faintly flickering on and off one by one, with Win Butler singing from what sounds like the middle of oblivion - far from the blissful optimism that came before. But more significantly, there are two songs on the album that feature the majestic, all-encompassing grand church organ, which by its very nature is literally the biggest musical showpiece on the record, and "My Body Is a Cage" is one of the two. That moment halfway through as the organ kicks into full gear following a brief silence and when the band try to match its loudness and intensity is the sound of the apocalypse coming that the Neon Bible warned about all the way back at the start of the record. It makes the hairs on your back stand up for attention: Win Butler yearns for redemption and liberation and he sings it with such conviction that you, too, start to believe in its rapture. It's a phenomenal showpiece, and a stunning way to close the album.
The other organ-featuring song is "Intervention", which is an Arcade Fire powerhouse moment on steroids. Build-ups, back and forth vocals, impassioned performance, fist-pumping chorus - but now with a giant organ right off the bat and an orchestra to accompany it (the moment when the strings appear is one of the band's greatest singular moments). It's unashamedly huge, and it's basically manna from heaven for my musical tastebuds; and it's a perfect example that no matter how many things you place on top of one another on Neon Bible, they each still get the breathing space needed to make an impact. It's a impressive song with an impressive sound, yet still so full of little details and atmosphere which turn it from great to iconic. The arrangements serve the songs and the other way around: both built around one another in perfect symbiosis, the production emphasising the tonal undercurrents of the songs that were from the get-go written for these grand ideas. And while everything on Neon Bible is huge in comparison to many other albums, it's still at its very best when it really goes all-in on that impactful wall of sound, as evidenced by "Intervention", "No Cars Go", "My Body Is a Cage", or "Ocean of Noise". That song may be the album's most graceful moment - a yearning slow dance by the moonlit pier - but it becomes something wholly different when Butler backs away and lets the strings and horns take over as the lead, every colour in the spectrum flooding in synesthesic beauty and tugging more heartstrings than any singular voice ever could. Neon Bible sometimes literally covers its singers with its arrangements, but it becomes the logical extension for the feelings those voices started to express, amplifying them rather than drowning them out.
Because Neon Bible and Arcade Fire get it. They get why these grand bombastic moments can hit so powerfully to the listener, why sometimes you should strive for something universal, and they understand how you can make something so big without it sounding crowded or overproduced. Sounding epic isn't simply about making things louder: it's about taking the core emotion of the song, and then reshaping it with other tools until it becomes the core of very moment you live in. Neon Bible is in my books a perfect representation of that. It resonates because it makes a point about stirring its - and your - emotions into its central tenet: be it the grim foreboding, the tearjerking bittersweetness or the unbridled glee that the band so effortlessly weave in and out and in-between from. Despite how it's a less intimate album than its predecessor, which it often gets compared to as its immediate follow-up, Neon Bible has always felt more personal to me than Funeral. I joined the Funeral hype squad a little after everyone else already had, but Neon Bible felt like my discovery, my experience to intake. The impatient wait for it - with the radio rips, the enticing samples in the teaser trailer (still one of my favourite album trailers) and the internet breadcrumb trail of news that was still something novel - and the eventual first time of hearing its massive sound through my speakers made the album that much more impactful on a personal level, with all those hopes and dreams for what the album could be turning into a reality. It struck a particular connection with me, and over the years it has become more than just its music for me - it's an experience that feels close to my own heart specifically, where I feel like my entire body pays attention to when I listen to it. It's a special record and it's not because of its message or concept or themes - Butler has never made for much of a social commentator and while it has some stand-out moments ("My Body Is a Cage" in particular) lyrically, I'm not intimately attached to the words on the album like I am with many others of my perfect score records. But if a picture says more than a thousand words, then in Neon Bible's case those orchestras, organs, horns and several passionate Canadians shouting harmonies into the microphone express more than any lyric ever could.
Physically: Jewel case stored in a cardboard sleeve, and a wonderfully thick lyric/art booklet with alternative artwork underneath the main artwork on the sleeve.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2010||8||"The Suburbs", "Ready to Start", "Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains)"|
1) The Suburbs; 2) Ready to Start; 3) Modern Man; 4) Rococo; 5) Empty Room; 6) City With No Children; 7) Half Light I; 8) Half Light II (No Celebration); 9) Suburban War; 10) Month of May; 11) Wasted Hours; 12) Deep Blue; 13) We Used to Wait; 14) Sprawl I (Flatlands); 15) Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains); 16) The Suburbs (Continued)
You might think it's back to basics but really, it's a suburban sprawl: cosey and homely perhaps, but sneakily taking over new territories.
The Suburbs is a palate cleanser for Arcade Fire. Neon Bible took their crescendo-driven songwriting to its absolute limit, and I loved every orchestrally exploding, choir-drowned, organ-bellowing second of it. But, there is a limit to just how big you can get and after that you either start repeating your tricks or you can choose to move to a different aisle. It wasn't just bigger in sound but also in its message, Win Butler shifting his sights from the snow-covered neighbourhoods of Funeral to doom-mongering over the entire world. A few years later and those sentiments had moved to self-doubt, or as The Suburbs at one point puts it so aptly: "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”.
The Suburbs is a return to smaller stakes, to some extent. It's still very much an Arcade Fire record with all the epic moments that come with that name attached, but in the context of this particular group it's scaled down, stripping away a lot of the extra bells and whistles that they themselves had introduced to the 00s indie rock scene. It's more down to earth and firmly fixed in the personal scale of its titular nostalgic suburbs - Butler shrinks the record’s aim into the microcosm of the neighbourhoods and faded teenage memories, personal stories and introspection from when the rest of the world was just a blurry image in the horizon. Alongside that, the music pulls back as well: the production is more straightforward, even compared to Funeral, and the album frequently takes its time enjoying the stillness rather than ramping up to the finale, as evidenced by numerous two-parter songs with extended introductionary sequences or outros. The Suburbs still layered in multitudes - the band is a septet of multi-instrumentalists after all - but its approach is, in lack of a better word, less show-offy about the wide range of talent the band hold.
The greatest trick The Suburbs pulls is hiding its own expansiveness underneath a back-to-basics exterior: it's an experimental, transitional record in disguise. Crowd-inspiring anthems were Arcade Fire's signature move, but third time doing them in the same way and you could start wearing the concept thin - but at the same time, the band weren't seemingly sure where exactly to steer their ship either. Thus, Arcade Fire aren’t reinventing themselves here and the stylistic concepts of the first two records are running throughout The Suburbs - “Rococo” carries the maximalism of Neon Bible and the close-to-heart warmth of e.g. “The Suburbs” and “Modern Man” descend from the homegrown intimacy of Funeral. Many of the album's greatest moments have their feet stuck firmly in the band's own musical history, particularly with the hazy melancholy of its marching title track and the stunning "Suburban War" which is one of the band's most gorgeously arranged pieces with most arresting melodies - both of which still sound like familiar Arcade Fire by this stage. But those recognisable siybds are are intermittently scattered in-between the rest of the sprawling 16-track record, serving as the center for the ideas board the rest of the album represents and used as springboards to new areas. It's why it's not quite accurate to call The Suburbs simply an Arcade Fire record that got toned down, because a good two thirds of the record sees the band pulling in new ideas or executing old ones in different ways.
How that manifests most notably is in just how dynamic The Suburbs sounds - or in other words, how much it rocks. Arcade Fire have never exactly been close to the 'rock' part of 'indie rock', but for The Suburbs they channel their characteristic zeal and arena-sized energy into giving their songs a right kick under the rear. There’s a world of difference between e.g. the stadium fist-pumper “Ready to Start”, the noisy punk brattiness of “Month of May” and the baroque shoegaze of “Empty Room”, but what they all share is the sheer show of force in their sound and in the playing. One of Arcade Fire’s greatest assets is their passionate intensity and throughout The Suburbs they use that to be loud, fervent and exhilirating. Many of its most deftly arranged, gorgeously performed songs lie in its less frantic corners, but it's that punchiness of its most electrically charged songs that really sticks out when you actually play the album - and even during the subtler moments, there's a liveliness and strength to the band's play that comes naturally when now-seasoned live veterans return to bashing things out together within the same small four walls. In Arcade Fire's context The Suburbs is an intimate record, but only in the sense that the sweat in the player's brows is palpable through the sheer power of their playing, as they bring the songs to life in what is for them a relatively low-stakes production environment.
It's why “Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains)” works so well at the end of the album. The other stylistic undercurrent cutting across The Suburbs is that it features a couple of songs where synthesizers dominate the soundscape - which, if you're aware of the wider discography, is in retrospect a clear test run for the ideas that would start popping around the next set of records. The twilight rave of "Half Light II" (which marries beautifully to its more Suburbs-like first half) is an exciting jolt of surprise already, but "Sprawl II" gets the fabled penultimate spot: the tracklist slot where Arcade Fire always bring out their record-defining highlights. Compared to most of the earnestly self-serious The Suburbs, it’s a complete 180° turn - a perkily pop-flirting number lead by Reginé Chassagne, all bright synth leads, bubbling synth bass and a light-footed, shuffling rhythm eager to hit the dancefloor. Where Butler has been searching for meaning in adolescent experiences and got lost on the path between the suburbs and where he is now (and as an aside, this is probably Butler's peak as a lyricist and "Suburban War" in particular is sublime and nails down the record's entire concept beautifully), Chassagne brings the colour back into the world. “Sprawl II” is a fantastic song, radiating with so much genuine warmth and fun - it's still caught in the anxiety of growing up somewhere so small that you felt trapped, but it's bursting with defiance and pride about escaping into the wider world. It subtly shifts up from its quaint beginnings into a veritable giant and even still it sounds so lightweight it could practically fly off. As the de facto closer of the record (the reprise of “The Suburbs” at the literal end is really just an outro), it not just brings the album's various threads together, but it turns them into the proud declaration of intent that the rest of the album shies away from - and it does it with a massive smile on its face. That contrast at the end works so very beautifully.
"Sprawl II" also draws a line on the ground as it starts pulling the curtains to a close: it's the most out-and-out diversion from what had been established as The Arcade Fire Sound, and after The Suburbs the band took it as their main inspiration to move away from that sound. Which makes The Suburbs somewhat of a pivotal record for the band because while on one hand it takes a step back towards a tone closer to their roots, it ultimately represents a desire to change, for the band to start shifting shape. Yet, its stylistic experiments are still done with an overall cohesion in mind as part of the Wider Concept of the record, and they're tucked in-between songs which basically sound just like more great Arcade Fire songs - so you might never even realise just how much it's started to move away from the expected. That's why it's not necessarily one of their more stand-out records, because it feels like a slight retread unless you really start paying attention to it - and it definitely could have shaved off a few songs and the "Wasted Hours" / "Deep Blue" couplet has always been the section that comes to my mind - and I for one certainly underestimated as such for a long time after its release. In retrospect The Suburbs' true nature becomes more clear though, both as a hint towards the future and final farewell to the past, and from a completely personal angle it took me a good many years after its release to realise just how good of a record it was and why. If it's possible for Arcade Fire to release a slowburner then this is it, but its thrills are many and various.
Physically: The Suburbs was released with a whopping nine different cover variants where the scenery in front of the car differs; mine is the (appropriately) suburban neigborhood shot, pictured above. I didn’t choose this one specifically, it just happened to be the one in the shop at the time. Gatefold packaging with a fold-out lyrics sheet.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2013||9||"Reflektor", "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)", "Afterlife"|
CD1: 1) Reflektor; 2) We Exist; 3) Flashbulb Eyes; 4) Here Comes the Night Time; 5) Normal Person; 6) You Already Know; 7) Joan of Arc
CD2: 1) Here Comes the Night Time II; 2) Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice); 3) It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus); 4) Porno; 5) Afterlife; 6) Supersymmetry
Shorter than your average double album but packed with far more concepts than normal. Arcade Fire start a new chapter of their career with a dense beast you can dance to.
By Reflektor, Arcade Fire had openly become a band who were just as much about their concepts as they were about their music, and those two aspects held hands very tightly. There had been a gradual shift from Funeral's coordinated Victorian hipster uniforms to the carefully planned recurring motifs and visual accompaniments of The Suburbs, with Arcade Fire spending more time with each album to create some form of mythology around them. Reflektor itself above all signals a new chapter for the band and a re-invention of sorts, but its new sound often distracts from what an incredibly dense record it is from a thematic perspective. If the band were emphasising the conceptual aspects of their songwriting process then Reflektor is where that cup started to risk overflowing: it's an album that places its foot in so many doorways and crams a number of entirely disparate concepts together into a wide collage, with a rabbit hole of ideas hidden underneath waiting to swallow up its listeners.
It's understandable though that the new musical direction attracts the most attention. All great artists go through a skinshedding moment eventually and in the case of Arcade Fire, theirs was to suddenly and shockingly move from beloved indie anthems into disco-ready floor stompers. Except, not quite. For one thing, it's not as if the concept of putting a groove on was ever alien to the band - check out all those four-to-the-floor finales on Funeral - and so Reflektor is more of an extension of something that was always lying underneath. But most damningly narrowing the scope down to just the prevalence of open hi-hat beats sells the album's range short. It's true that its most prominent moments are clearly inclined to hit the dancefloor, but focusing on that means you ignore the carnival anthems, the riff-rockers (in both loud and jangly varieties), the theatrical centrepieces and the synthesizer mood moments that inhabit Reflektor's two discs. The underlying narrative thread is on sustaining a groove of some kind and letting the rhythm lead the way as much as the melodies, but Reflektor casts its nets far wider than just that.
Reflektor is split into two discs, mainly out of circumstance: the band intended to make a short record, which they failed to do spectacularly when they kept writing 6-7 minute songs, and so splitting the final album into two distinct halves was primarily a way to compromise on the initial idea. That said, the two discs do also roughly correlate with the album's main lyrical concepts and, coincidentally or not, also arrange the album's musical motifs into tidy movements. The first disc is the endlessly style-shifting beast that walks a varied journey across only seven songs, where Regine Chassagne's Haitian roots (which inspired much of the record from the sound to the stagewear and the promotional graffitis that signalled the album's arrival) meet with the co-production from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, who casts his New York cool all over the songs. It's also where the whole 'reflector' concept comes in play the most: at the time Win Butler was binging on Søren Kierkegaard and his writings about "a reflective age", mass conformity and their effect on human identity, and those particularly existential flavours form the thematic line between the otherwise disjointed songs. Meanwhile the second disc is a more tightly knit musical suite which operates within similar soundscapes throughout its dramatic flow, utilising the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and its tragedies love affair as the central lyrical inspiration for its six songs. The band were also working for the score for Spike Jonze's film Her around the same time and there's traces of its takes on love as a mystical force running across the tracks as well: directly in case of "Supersymmetry", which was composed for the film and then reformatted for Reflektor.
What Arcade Fire have created with Reflektor is a space where those potentially preposterous - or pretentious, if you wish, but I'd give you a disappointed glare - ideas and Butler's wildly hit-and-miss writing pen find a musical format where they turn out to work phenomenally. When I talk about Reflektor being dense, it's because it's a record where I find it harder than normal to split the concept from the sound and treat the songs as just songs, because you have all these thematic threads from the Haitian carnivals to love after literal and metaphorical death to 'we live in a society' style creeds, and then they're bundled up with songs which are impossibly stylish and yet often forebodingly threatening, both looking at its topics as a cold and detached spectator and someone caught within the turmoil. This is particularly the case on the first half. "Reflektor" is only right to start the album as the title track as it's a hefty song with a lot going on - seven and a half minutes of Haitian percussion swinging with disco beats, French and English vocal swaps, David Bowie cameos, nods to the Kierkegaard writings, a tonal shift which moves the song from a cool indie club banger to a hair-raising crescendo that's like the moment you realise the storm has arrived and it's too late to run. It works phenomenally: it's one of Arcade Fire's all-time greats and as the very first song it signals accurately that there will be no limits to where this record could go.
The rest of disc one is effectively an extension of "Reflektor", in that it is a lot of big ideas running around to a point that they form an almost impossible to control hurricane of inspiration. "We Exist" sways even further into the disco with its "Billie Jean" bass while heavily implying but never outright saying what identity issues it exactly refers to (the official video opts for trans representation), lacing its funky slickness with both defiance and venom. The dub nod of "Flashbulb Eyes" and the carnival breakdown of "Here Comes the Night Time" are most directly inspired by the Haitian excursions the band were taking prior to the record, taking Arcade Fire into brand new waters musically but melting those influences naturally into a part of their sound. From here Arcade Fire suddenly realise they are a rock band too, and so "Normal Person" trashes the hotel room with its big electric guitars and is cathartically fun in its over the top antics and self-aware tongue-in-cheekiness, "You Already Know" is a deliciously melodic foray into 80s indie and quite possibly the most criminally underrated song across the entire two discs (and for a person living in the UK, that Jonathan Ross cameo never stops being weird), and "Joan of Arc" is all glam swagger, big drums and big fist pumps. It's a hefty, strange journey where each song is a curveball, but all the elements come together to create something incredible and truly memorable: sincerity and irony melt into a surreal concoction delivered with so much passion it doesn't matter which way it swings, the general songwriting is some of the band's strongest, and the production and arrangements are both ingeniusly detailed as well as creatively chaotic. It's a bewildering set of songs but excitingly so, a true treasure trove of creativity.
The second disc gives the album its breathing space because it's a lot less manic than the first half. The songs play more comfortably together in sound and tone, and are a more direct realisation of the threads that The Suburbs' more synth-laden moments hinted for the band to take. It's a quiet start with the reprise of "Here Comes the Night Time" acting as the bridge between the two discs and "Awful Sound" (which is anything but) acting as a calmer counterpart to "Reflektor" in how its announces its disc's themes - it bears a lush, quintessentially Arcade Fire -esque sound but updated for the reflective age, glimmering in keyboards, filters and processed drums. The second half doesn't truly kick into its groove until "It's Never Over", and when that kick arrives it's massive: the stammering, thick beat is already appropriately dramatic for the increase in bombast that the song brings, but it's in particular the moment when the verses come back alive after the first breakdown and announce their arrival with a triumphant horn section, that the second side of Reflektor truly begins in earnest. It's a spellbinding moment that continues to sound incredible each listen, with the long multi-song build-up reaping its rewards beautifully. "Porno" and "Supersymmetry" both move further into a more synthesizer-friendly ground, the former clicking and popping with such a heavily theatrical tone that it almost obscures just how great the suave build-up and chorus melody is, and "Supersummetry" gives the album a beautifully understated and quietly epic finale. Its ascending harmonies are a long cry from the frantic start of the record, with all bliss and no discord in its star-gazing atmosphere. It's a lush and gorgeous ending, even if the decision to tack on extra six minutes of ambient noise at the end is arguably one production choice too far, because it adds so little to the conclusion of the record. The album also bears a hidden pre-gap track in the null space of the first disc which is effectively just some of the key melodies of the record played in reverse, and if you ask me it would have served as a more interesting ambient outro.
What really makes the ending of Reflektor is the presence of "Afterlife" as the penultimate song, the great finale before the finale as is the band's tradition. "Afterlife" is heartache under the mirror ball, melancholy and carefully hidden despair that run away from their emotional heft onto the dancefloor to try and forget. It's a beautiful and powerful song and serves as the emotional climax of Reflektor as a whole, with the mania and thunderball energy of the album's first half returning and powering up the more introspectively charged reflection of its second half for one last dance. It sweeps away with its woah-ohs and ever-intensifying choruses while the layered percussions and simple keyboard riff give it a lightweight, light-footed tone that disguises just how colossal of a tune it is. But Butler sounds defeated and like he already knows the answer when he pleads if he can make it through; the way he utters "oh my god, what an awful word" towards the start of the song packs so much evocative emotion in how low-key loathed it is. The first disc of the record indulged in its excesses and the second disc saw the comedown slowly growing more lucid, and "Afterlife" as the whole record's undeniable highlight slots right there as the moment where all the shields come down and what's left is the same charismatic emotion and sincerity that has always shined through in the band.
That final set of songs is where Reflektor is its most emotionally evocative; in fact, for most of its duration Arcade Fire keep their usual level of sentimentality and vulnerability out of Reflektor. It's an emotionally distanced record until it starts breaking away its barriers towards its finale, and that's potentially what prevents it from being one of the all-time greats: that as much as I love Reflektor, it just lacks that one final emotional hook. My personal resonance for the album lies largely in how strongly the worldbuilding took me over. The band were creating something larger than just a record with Reflektor, with the emphasis on extramusical details that the band built around the album: the pre-release shenanigans, the more theatrical live shows with extras and dramatic stage performances, as well as the supplementing features (including the pseudo-live feature Here Comes the Night Time with its hectic celebrity cameos, an exercise in millennially ironic surreality). They were selling a full concept, and I was buying it - when a band goes the extra mile, I tend to be the type of nerd who openly bites the bait. So Reflektor isn't just the music for me, it's also the countless mental images and recollections of particularly arresting visual moments the band scattered across its period and which are now forever associated with these songs: the "Reflektor" video, the Glastonbury performance of "It's Never Over" with Regine in her own section surrounded by skeletal extras, the "Afterlife" live performances illuminated by mirrorball light (with the Tonight Show and Graham Norton Show appearances above all), the Here Comes the Night Time visuals, and more. Arcade Fire created a visually arresting and sublimely cohesive universe throughout the Reflektor period, which in its own way is awe-inspiring. It may seem irrelevant to some to highlight so many things that aren’t found within the album itself, but for me, the music of Reflektor is impossible to tear away from its peripheral material.
The music is, of course, incredible just as it is. With Reflektor Arcade Fire threw everything around them into a singular melting pot, took a gamble to forge a new path with what they pulled out of the pot, and created a classic record: a thrilling and invigorating explosion of inspiration which, yes, is also good to dance to at times.
Physically: An extremely shiny gatefold with each silver/gray element being vividly reflective (it’s just a reflector!). A separate fold-out lyrics sheet for both discs.
|Release year:||Rating:||Key tracks:|
|2017||8||"Everything Now", "Signs of Life", "Put Your Money on Me"|
1) Everything_Now (Continued); 2) Everything Now; 3) Signs of Life; 4) Creature Comfort; 5) Peter Pan; 6) Chemistry; 7) Infinite Content; 8) Infinite_Content; 9) Electric Blue; 10) Good God Damn; 11) Put Your Money on Me; 12) We Don't Deserve Love; 13) Everything Now (Continued)
What you may know it from: awkward and clunky antics. What you should know it from: its restless and quirky pace and fun grooves..
Following on from Reflektor, by the mid-2010s Arcade Fire had embraced their conceptual side, marrying their music together with visuals and elaborate theatrics to create something greater and more meaningful than "just" a new record. That was one of the great aspects of Reflektor that I particularly responded to on a personal level, and so the band continuing on that route was a development I quite liked in theory. But three years later, when the band tried to focus even harder on making an all-encompassing conceptual setpiece around Everything Now, the results were the complete opposite.
It's almost impossible to discuss Everything Now and not mention all the peripheral material, and that's largely because the band made such a big deal about it themselves that it succumbed the actual album. I'm a cynical millennial who has by now lived through three economic recessions in my lifetime but even I admit that the shtick about an all-devouring Jeff Bezos corporate wet dream hellscape was an ill-fitting and sometimes even ill-advised angle to try and make your campaign revolve around on: instead of nodding in agreement as Arcade Fire preached to the choir, the execution was painfully heavyhanded as the ideas and inspiration turned out to be little beyond how consumerism and capitalism are, like, bad. Between the band's social media profiles getting 'taken over' by their corporate overlords, the fake advertisements that got spammed through them and the overconceptualised press releases, the point got lost somewhere within all the anvilicious satire. It wasn't inventive, original or even that smart or funny, and yet the roll-out was pushed with such self-certainty of its own strengths that it actively got you thinking whether the more ironic moments of the band's past antics were ever that ironic after all. It was all getting a little too close to U2 at their worst.
The real tragedy of the Everything Now roll-out is that all the shenanigans managed to completely drown the record itself underneath the noise and the reputation that still lingers around the album, which is undeserved because Everything Now is a seriously great and weird album that its clichéd concept does absolutely no justice to. There is no clear angle to Everything Now musically: while its sound is rooted in the same slick groove-laden synth-rock vibe that was introduced on parts of Reflektor, it's far more accurately a record that sounds like whatever it wants at any given time. If anything, it's the anything-goes mentality of the first half of Reflektor taken to even further lengths, where no idea is too preposterous or absurd to be corporated into to the Arcade Fire repertoire. It's not just the band playing dress-up, but they're irreverent and rowdy about it, testing out new outfits and discarding them abruptly immediately afterwards, taking the listener for a ride that's likely to raise more than few confused exclamations the first time around. But the particularly cheeky way the band pull this through is what makes it also a genuinely fun album in all its sound-twisting delivery. You can hear the audacity and the rebellious joy that the band operate on throughout Everything Now, which once again runs against so much of the po-faced delivery of its promotional run. Even the lyrics get in on the fun more often than they wave a finger at CEOs: for example the synth freak-out "Creature Comfort" is a fine song in itself (there's definitely something to marvel at in its busy and untamed production) but its clear highlight is "she dreams about dying all the time / she told me she came so close / filled up the bathtub and put on our first record", which is pretty much the perfect jab to place within a record that is bound to alienate even further those who think Funeral was the band's last real triumph. It's the kind of self-aware nod that most of the promotional mess around the record tried to handle but failed. I honestly don't know what the end game for the revolving roulette of ideas of Everything Now was, but it doesn't get enough credit for being an album that constantly keeps you on your toes and does so in positive manner, where tonal whiplashes form into a strange but incredibly catchy journey along the way.
Which makes the title track, which was released as the lead single and which opens the album after the looping intro/outro reprises, a gigantic red herring even though it's arguably come to represent the album the most. From a band who always sounded like their sound would only ever fit stadiums, comes their first genuine stadium anthem: complete with a group vocal featuring literally hundreds of people captured in the kind of live setting that this song was made for, a bluntly open invite to ask people to partake into its charms. "Everything Now" is a fantastic song, don't get me wrong - it's a masterclass example of how to make a stadium pop song genuinely come to life and to sound absolutely magical in its size. It is also, however, a very conventional song to front and to represent an album that really isn't one in the slightest, and so it in no way prepares for what's actually coming up after it.
Take for example the disco/funk assault of "Signs of Life", right behind. It's perhaps not so unexpected as a stylistic exercise after Reflektor's foray under the mirrorball, but there is no way you can be prepared for the knowingly cheesy call-and-answer backing vocals and Win Butler spending a verse rapping through the weeks of the day. From there the song just goes more and more beautifully over-the-top as it progresses, becoming a delirious joyride - there's so much excitement and fun to it and its delivery, right down to the delicious disco violins, and it's where co-producer Thomas Bangalter's Daft Punk backbone-tapping groove magic shines the most. "Chemistry" tipsily wobbles around a light reggae vibe and has a real wink in its eye with its lovelorn lyrics and it comes across like an oddball cover of an old showtune, and why it's on an Arcade Fire record who knows but it slyly charms with its wiles. The bubbly slow jam "Peter Pan" feels almost normal in this context, but that sense of harmony is quickly broken down when the "Infinite Content" duo storms the stage: first by blowing the door open with a ramshackle punk attitude, before it abruptly cuts into an americana ballad for its second act. Both of those halves could be a brilliant song on their own if fleshed out into a full-length segment (especially the first one with its downright exhuberant instrumental breaks): as the two halves are bashed together like this, you have a bewildering but thrilling double-interlude wrecking havoc in the middle of the record.
Towards its end Everything Now starts to calm down as it moves towards a more emotive, perhaps a more sincere finale, away from the bait-and-switch antics of its first half. The Regine-sung "Electric Blue" is a wonderful synth pop anthem for dancing by yourself through a 3am city centre (I only nick some points off for the atypically shrill vocal production which grates against the rest of the song's atmosphere) and the subtle "Good God Damn" has grown from the obvious filler cut of the album to a suavely captivating little brooder whose bass-heavy drawl learns to linger around in your head much longer than you originally anticipated, but they're primarily the bridge for the traditional Arcade Fire big finish. "Put Your Money on Me" is where everything comes together: it's as slick and refined as anything on the record but it also speeds into a surprising whirlwind of a post-chorus where the spirit of ABBA possesses the band seemingly out of nowhere. The sound is the closest approximation to what could constitute as Arcade Fire's core in 2017, but the heart and emotion in it is practically vintage in its earnestness, resonance and urgency. It it, as they say, a hell of a song. "We Don't Deserve Love" effectively starts as its extended coda, pulling that emotion right into the forefront, before coming to life as its own majestic entity. It's a space-age synth power ballad slowly unfurling into a supernova explosion of lights and dramar, covering itself in layers of melodies and harmonies and sounding so vulnerable despite its size. There's so much acting and facade in the whole story arc for Everything Now, but for the closure of the album itself the band simply serve the same kind of great emotional warmth that they've always done best - as if to say that even though it's been an unexpected trip, they're still the same band.
And that, I guess, is my hot take on Everything Now: that despite everything trying to point otherwise it's still by the same band who were behind the previous set of records too and it carries the strengths they've always had. It's absolutely a different frontier for Arcade Fire and Everything Now is without a doubt a mystifying record, one which I can't wait to read a detailed postmortem on some day in the future simply because it does sound like the band snapped one day when brainstorming ideas for their next record. But it's also a captivating, engaging and at the end of the day - and perhaps most of all - a powerfully entertaining record. Its anthems aren't often the emotionally evocative kind, but it's hard to complain about the record when I'm tapping my foot to its rhythms, unexpectedly dancing in my living room to it and getting swept by the melodic rush of energy that surges through the record. Even though it presents itself as some kind of an attempt at a deep statement on capitalism and corporations, that angle turns out to be more window dressing than actual real content, and you can count the songs on the album that tap into those Deep Thoughts just by using fingers on one of your hands. What Everything Now does represent is a record where the band in fact let their hair down for once. It's addictive and just so damn fun to listen to that I'm beginning to wonder if its detractors have ever even really paid attention to it.
Physically: Everything Now came with two different cover versions, the ‘day’ version (pictured and owned) and the more limited ‘night’ variant; I chose the day one simply because the warm orange shade appeals to my tastes more. Gatefold housed in a plastic sleeve which bears additional artwork details and the tracklist (depicted as corporate logos). Fold-out lyrics sheet in classic Arcade Fire style, this time stylised as a newspaper’s adverts page.
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