Led by a sometime theology student from the Houston suburbs who attended Phillips Exeter before dropping out of Sarah Lawrence and a Haitian Creole woman whose family fled the Papa Doc regime before she was born, Montreal’s Arcade Fire are the most conventional indie band to rise to prominence in this young century. You could make a case for the Drive-By Truckers or the Hold Steady, but both cultivate garage crudity where the Arcade Fire are stalwart in their pursuit of sweeping arena-rock grandeur. These days it’s common enough to admire Springsteen or Bowie in the indie world, and acceptable enough to dig Queen or Depeche Mode. Just not all at once. When Win Butler calls the Arcade Fire’s music “art-rock,” first you chuckle at his candor. Then you wonder whether he has anything artier than Electric Light Orchestra in mind.
Though the underlying aesthetic remains consistent, each of the band’s four longforms has its own sonic signature. The self-released, self-titled 2003 EP, featuring many musicians who would move on forthwith and now withdrawn from sale, is an amateurish effort that belabors the band’s emotionalism. Loose and lavish, grief-stricken and triumphant, 2004′s Merge debut Funeral is a great leap forward that gets their emotionalism right, and catapulted them into an acclaim that soon spread far beyond the hipsters who started it. Bidding hipsterism a speedy adieu, 2007′s Neon Bible booms and surges, bigging up Funeral‘s anthems with orchestral synths and oratorical urgency as it peers out around their personal pain at holy wars, rising tides, surveillance cameras, and wage slavery. The new The Suburbs remains anthemic as it arrays 16 tracks over 64 minutes, yet it’s also pointedly lyrical and relaxed. As several reviewers have remarked, the music “breathes”‑-a verb that oddly enough also appears in the publicity bio.
My preference is for Neon Bible, but that’s the minority view of an old lefty who’s a big admirer rather than a besotted fan. Funeral is still the best-seller‑-over 500,000, thus qualifying for gold certification whenever Merge jumps through the RIAA’s hoops, with Neon Bible 100,000 or so behind. If it’s ever overtaken, the new champ will be The Suburbs, released August 3 in a furious and ultimately successful promotional push to bum-rush Eminem at number one in Billboard‑-a push that kicked off at Arcade Fire’s August 4 show at Madison Square Garden as if Win Butler had been planning it for years, which in a sense he had. Two nights, both sold out‑-damn good for anybody these days, unheard of for an indie.
The Arcade Fire are an exceptionally principled band. They don’t need to be on Merge‑-they want to be. After Funeral, they took every meeting that came their way, but as Butler has said: “We definitely got offered a lot of money. But we never met anyone who made sense for the band.” The decision was in part financial‑-if Merge can stay on top of cash and product flow, a big if, the Arcade Fire can make more per record there than at any major label. But it’s also the decision of the rare indie band who almost never license their music out, although they did agree to a Super Bowl spot for Funeral‘s “Wake Up,” all proceeds to Partners in Health’s Haiti project — which also got a table and a buck a ticket at the Garden. It’s hard to maintain such ideals at a major.
For the Drive-By Truckers and the Hold Steady, traditional rock and roll is a natural vehicle for the traditional songs they want to put across‑-traditional as regards scansion and construction and narrative tone, not values or subject matter (though there’s some of that too). And they’re old-fashioned rock and rollers in another sense, because they’re full of hard-drinking rowdies. The Arcade Fire have a different program. From the dawn of Funeral‑-when Butler was 24 and his wife Régine Chassagne was 27‑-they’ve been proud propagandists for maturity. Famously, Funeral was a mourning record, suffused with grief over the deaths of Chassagne’s grandmother and Butler’s grandfather. Although some scoffed at how hard these losses got played, this emphasis was more lazy journalists parroting the bio than ambitious artists working an angle. Anyway, Butler’s grandfather was a popular Western swing bandleader and Chassagne’s grandmother a hero who saved her family from the Tonton Macoute, so you can see how their deaths might have felt especially momentous. But they already had a penchant for the past, which as I see it they mean not to revive for the marketplace but to reinterpret for their contemporaries. Rather then bringing back old styles and sounds, their goal is to make old structures of feeling signify anew. That’s maturity, not traditionalism.
Even so, I was a little surprised by the Garden crowd, which was more mixed generationally than any 21st-century alt show I’ve witnessed. Kempt couples in their twenties barely outnumbered kempt couples in their thirties, a discernible percentage were older than that, and apparent parent-child combos were numerous even though few teenagers were visible. So if the Arcade Fire is indeed reinterpreting a structure of feeling, their revision seems to be going over with those who built it up in different historical circumstances. Neon Bible, the nearest the band has come to a literal arena-rock revival, got the short end of the set list, which comprised seven of Funeral‘s 11 songs, nine of The Suburbs‘s 16, and only three of Neon Bible‘s 11. Especially given how effectively these powerhouses kept the crowd running, I could have done with a few more, especially “Windowsill,” which complicates the traditionalism issue sharply: “Don’t want to live with my father’s debt/You can’t forgive what you can’t forget.”
The Suburbs softens that tone‑-thematically, it’s the Arcade Fire’s most nuanced record. Not that Funeral was all post-adolescent angst or Neon Bible all awakening rage‑-without some moments of respite and hints of absurdity, they wouldn’t be worth thinking about. But The Suburbs is real both-sides-now stuff, the shifting thoughts of a guy who went to the city to seek his music but is now mature enough to wonder about comforts left behind. If there’s a single thread of feeling, it’s neither anti-suburban or pro-suburban, just hyperaware of life’s limitations wherever you end up. Right, teenagers “longing to be free” need to turn their “Wasted Hours” “into a life that we can live.” But one song later Butler urges us to put down our cellphones and laptops, and right after that the crucial “We Used to Wait” remembers that “we used to waste hours just walking around” almost as if he missed the slack. Like every alt hero suffering backlash, Butler has had enough of “the modern kids” he mocks in “Rococo.” But does he want to show an as yet unborn daughter “some beauty before all this damage is done” because elsewhere he feels completely isolated, presumably even from his wife? Or are those just different days, different moods?
This thematic range all but demanded that the Arcade Fire open their music up. But since like most successful indie bands they’ve toured assiduously, most of their fans already had visual evidence that they were looser than they sounded. Their records evoke many famous old names. But their communal vibe onstage has few classic precedents‑-maybe P-Funk or the Mekons. Geographically and historically, a closer analogy would be the oldest established permanent floating crap shoot in Toronto, Broken Social Scene, although from what I read they’re less theatrical. Switching instrumental roles on every number, the Arcade Fire make a show of their communalism. At the Garden, Win’s synth-playing brother Will prowled around beating a drum, both female violinists shook some action, and Chassagne was everywhere playing everything in her silvery dress‑-drums, keyboards, accordion, on one song hurdy-gurdy‑-as well as dancing with more enthusiasm than virtuosity whenever she was given an opening. Although Win Butler is the ringmaster, Chassagne and the violinists help explain another of the crowd’s demographic distinctions: near gender parity, with many female pairs and groups.
To use a term favored by the enlightened modern kids who still play albums a month old, The Suburbs is a grower. Its melodies tend toward the elegiac; it takes a while to sink in and never grabs you by the throat. But there’s an exception right at the end, and it’s Chassagne’s big feature: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” After an hour of her husband’s on-the-one-hand-this on-the-other-hand-that has taken us to his lost, depressive “Sprawl I (Flatlands),” a slow, determined beat is quickly established and her breathy soprano takes up the album’s most indelible tune: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock/These days my life I feel it has no purpose/But late at night the feelings swim toward the surface/’Cause at the surface the city lights shine/They’re calling at me: `Come and find your kind.’” The message isn’t fully explicit‑-much of the song dwells on the presumably extinguished lights of “dead shopping malls.” But the effect is to wipe the album’s doubts away, to assert that the Arcade Fire remain a band with a mission. At the Garden, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” was the second song of the encore, followed only by the Superbowl choice “Wake Up,” which the full house sang along: “Children wake up, hold your mistake up, before they turn the summer into dust.”
One reason I’m a Neon Bible guy is that I grew up in an era when rock and roll was helping turn the post-Depression ethos of delayed gratification to dust‑-just as Win Butler prefers The Suburbs because he’s convinced, as “We Used to Wait” insists, that the ethos of instant gratification is turning his own generation to dust. I’m a Neon Bible guy because its tunes kick in big and fast. But I’m also a Neon Bible guy because it gets more specific about the “they” who stand accused in the Funeral and Suburbs anthems the Arcade Fire closed their historic shows with. I’m a Neon Bible guy because it states its politics.
As formal progression, Funeral to Neon Bible to The Suburbs makes sense. But what makes more sense is to recognize that Neon Bible was a 2007 album, expressly outraged by six disastrous years of Bush-ism. Well before the primaries were over, the Montrealers became one of the first bands to campaign for Obama. What Butler has thought since the changing of the guard is not on the public record, but it’s safe to assume that he’s dismayed by both the crawl of the change and the virulence of the reaction. That’s the one hand. The other hand is that he’s not into instant gratification like the modern kids. So when the earthquake hit, there was a natural focus for the band’s idealism even as Butler’s thoughts turned to washing away his sins before “the death of everything that’s wild,” to having kids “before a world war does with us whatever it will do.”
I miss Neon Bible‘s militance‑-miss the way it got my blood up. But that’s hardly to dismiss a sane quest for balance as any kind of quietism. The Arcade Fire are good guys who’ve telescoped decades of experience into six or seven years without getting jaded or complacent about it. The Suburbs‘s punky “Month of May” calls out indie skeptics who stand around at gigs with their arms across their chests: “Well I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light/But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?” During the climactic “Wake Up,” I was struck by how many in the crowd reached their arms into the air.