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The undisputed brilliance of Arcade Fire

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-08-2017 Sanjoy Narayan

In July, a week before the launch of their anticipated new record, Everything Now, Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire posted a fake review of the album on a fake website called “Stereoyum” that parodied the reputed music blog, Stereogum. That was just one of the bizarre and satirical ways in which the band tried to market its new release. Earlier, a Twitter account, designed like a spam-bot, posted “clues” (including anagrams of song titles) about the new album; band members made diva-like demands on talk shows, and perpetrated a joke about marketing “removable jihadi beards”. At one pre-launch gig in Brooklyn, the band insisted on a formal dress code for attendees, only to retract it shortly after. Then, to top everything off, last week the band issued an apology, blaming everything on a social media marketer at the Everything Now Corp. Small fact: Both, the corporation and the staffer, were fictitious.

Many people found the marketing campaign overwrought, overdone and juvenile, especially for a band that has, in a relatively short span of time, gained fame, fortune and respect in heaps. The campaign may have boomeranged too. While Everything Now did get a few raves from the critics, the rants outnumbered those. The album, produced by one half of French electronic duo Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter, and former Britpop band Pulp’s bassist, Steve Mackey, is a sort of concept album—themed on a sinister corporation (yes, that’s where the idea of the Everything Now Corp. comes from); and on the perils of a techno-centric life (the two-part song, Infinite Content).

Yet, although it soared to Billboard’s top spot by clocking the highest sales in the week after it was released, it could leave the listener unfulfilled: jaded lyrics; and not enough pushing of the envelope by a band known to be talented experimenters. Misread me not. Everything Now has its upside. It’s a great dance album. Some of its songs are definitely foot-tappers: the three-variant Everything Now, which bookends the album; and Put Your Money On Me, a throwback that could remind you of ABBA’s hits from the 1970s. Plus, there’s We Don’t Deserve Love, a composition that reminds you how good the band can be. But if you’re a relativist, if you’ve heard all four of Arcade Fire’s earlier albums and those really did turn you on to the band, then you could be in for some disappointment.

At the core of Arcade Fire, formed in Montreal, Quebec, are frontman Win Butler (vocals, guitar and other instruments) and his wife Régine Chassagne (vocals, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, etc). Butler’s younger brother, Will, plays the synthesizers and other things, including panpipes, concertinas and the gadulka (a Bulgarian bowed string instrument). Then there’s Richard Reed Parry (multi-instrumentalist), Jeremy Gara (drums) and Tim Kingsbury (bass). In 2004, when they burst on the scene with their debut album Funeral, they were an instant sensation. Funeral was eclectic. Its sound drew as much from folk and rock as it did from orchestral symphonies and its honest and deep lyrics braided sadness with romance. Accordions, cellos and other string instruments marked the sound on Funeral but a throbbing rhythm of bass and drums throughout gave the album a distinctive indie rock character.

My favourite song on that album is Haiti, Chassagne’s ode to the island her parents had to flee in the 1960s.

After Funeral’s resounding success, Arcade Fire never looked back. In 2007, they released Neon Bible, a title taken from the late John Kennedy Toole’s first novel, The Neon Bible. Recorded in an old church outside Montreal that the band bought and converted into a studio, Neon Bible is expansive and bold. The band employed a military choir and an orchestra and did songs that were commentaries on politics, stardom and the bleakness of the future. The opener, Black Mirror (“Black mirror, black mirror/ Shot by a security camera/ You can’t watch your own image/ And also look yourself in the eye”), is my go-to song on the album and I was pleasantly surprised to read that the title of the highly successful British TV drama series was inspired by this song’s name.

Neon Bible was followed by 2010’s The Suburbs, a sort of coming-of-age album, full of hope, optimism and plans, themes that the band members, by now in their early 30s, hugely successful and capable of filling the biggest arenas, managed to sing about with the utmost intimacy. In 2011, The Suburbs won Grammy’s Album of the Year. Two years later, the band changed course with Reflektor. Co-produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Reflektor is a smörgåsbord of sounds that are eclectic and disparate—Murphy’s electronic dance beat, Haitian rara, rock and funk—yet they come together with remarkable coherence. On the 75-minute Reflektor, the 13 songs do not allow for a dull moment and demonstrate again the band’s penchant for playing with genres and experimenting with styles.

So, against the backdrop of that exuberant back catalogue, Arcade Fire’s latest, Everything Now, may seem lukewarm. But does it take anything away from the band’s sheer brilliance? I think not.

The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Black Mirror’ by Arcade Fire from ‘Neon Bible’

2. ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’ by Arcade Fire from ‘Everything Now’

3. The ‘Baker’s Dozen’ shows by Phish from LivePhish.com

4. ‘Smile’ (featuring Gloria Carter) by Jay-Z from ‘4:44’

5. ‘Bass Culture’ by Bill Laswell from ‘Bass Culture: Silent Warfare, The Deep, The Thunder Lizard…’

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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