Arcade Fire, They Kind of Matter… A Lot


Claire Little makes her debut with some reflections on musical figureheads, Arcade Fire: 

David Bowie – an early fan of the band – saw it. Their third studio album The Suburbs confirmed it. Now its successor Reflektor pretty much cements it. Arcade Fire are one of the greatest bands to emerge during the Generation Y era, and it’s kind of obvious now that they know it too. With the release of their fourth album in November, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne unashamedly embrace the alternative/weird/experimental/different in a way not seen since Radiohead and effectively said fuck it, we’re done with standard rock music. The result, unsurprisingly, is a great album that sounds absolutely nothing like anything you’ve ever heard before.

Returning to the previous analogy, it’s like going from boring hit single Creep to the haunting, “uncommercial” (as Radiohead’s record label initially described OK Computer) sounds of Paranoid AndroidReflektor – both the single featuring Bowie and its album of the same name – unreservedly cements Arcade Fire’s status as one of the biggest bands of the century. Not even Win and the band’s reputation as a bunch of self-righteous, pompous wankers can get in the way of this. It takes a lot of gusto (arrogance, whatever) for a band to introduce a strict “formal attire or costume” dress code to their tour shows. In fact, this dash of arrogance (or a healthy serving of it, whatever) is possibly half the reason Arcade Fire are – and will remain – one of the greatest acts of our generation’s musical pantheon.

In the Steps of Greatness
Any album following the footsteps of The Suburbs (Metascore 87, “universal acclaim”) faced daunting expectations. Hell, The Suburbs not only received universal acclaim everywhere you looked in 2011, topping the charts in the US and UK, it saw Arcade Fire mop the floor with pop music juggernauts such as Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and take an Album of the Year Grammy home to Montreal. The number of “who are Arcade Fire?” questions, Win’s “What the hell?” acceptance reaction on stage and Barbra Streisand’s stuttering attempt at reading an album name she had probably never heard of before are testament to the coup d’état the Canadian independents had pulled off in an industry dominated by major label-backed artists. Three years later Arcade Fire released Reflektor (Metascore 79, generally favourable reviews), easily their most hotly anticipated release, and it is… well different. Yet this difference its true strength.

Reflecting on Reflektor
Co-produced by James Murphy (the genius behind LCD Sound System) and based on the sounds and experiences of a journey through the Caribbean, Reflektor sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sure it is still stacked with Win’s superb lyric finesse (witness the early verses of the single Reflektor: If this is heaven/I don’t know what it’s for/If I can’t find you there/I don’t care) and melodies that are oh-so Arcade Fire. But compared to the more conventional indie sounding Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs, Reflektor is a walk off the beaten into a dangerous new realm. This is because of trips to Haiti and Jamaica, where Win and Co witnessed crowds of locals engaging dancing to the rhythmic sounds of rara, a local genre of street music. Music that got people of all ages together to lose themselves in dance and music free from influences and issues of ecstasy and other drugs that can lead to problems needing treatment. It’s like an all-age rave free from gurners chewing their faces and your ears off. “For me, the idea of going to Ibiza and dancing with a bunch of rich white kids high on ecstasy is about number a trillion on the list of what I want to do with my time,” Win eloquently explained to McCleans. “But being in rural Haiti, with one guy with a drum and he starts playing and kids come from the mountains and dance until three in the morning and then you jump in the ocean at the end – that I can really relate to.”

Capturing the Spirit of Haiti
Yet an idea and a reality is always a gulf apart. Intentions are easy. Mission accomplished status is something else. The question confronting the band was how to capture that energy. And this is why Arcade Fire matter and how they established themselves as a truly great indie act that matters. Without losing their distinct rockhestra sound or compromising in the slightest they pulled off an album fusing Haiti rara, indie rock and their distinct sound. Reflektor bleeds the cool of an album packed with fresh sounds that no one could have predicted was coming. Kind of like Kid A and OK Computer blew away any expectations and preconceptions Radiohead fans had. The genius of it all is particularly apparent on stand-out track Here Comes the Night (which has an excellent 20-minute mini movie by The Creators Project out featuring Micheal Cera and much more) where tribal beats underlay a track that sounds so Arcade Fire yet so un-Arcade Fire at the same time. Guitarist William Butler recently explained this new sound started in 2011 when they were hanging out in New Orleans with a Haitian band called RAM. “On The Suburbs, we had Depeche Mode and Neil Young at either end, this time it was the Haitian rhythms and synth drones but there was a ton of really abrasive punk rock that didn’t get as far as being on the album,” he said. From there trips to Haiti and Jamaica pretty much confirmed the band’s new direction on the album, which finally dropped this year. Two years later. It’s an ambitious album that is a stark departure for the band, but one that ultimately proves why they matter. It is through reinvention and experimentation such as this that the best bands ultimately prove why they are great. With Reflektor Arcade Fire have proved the world is their oyster.

Words by Claire Little