Arcade Fire are music's most unserious serious band
If you thought that Arcade Fire would play it safe in order to win over the "Who the fuck are Arcade Fire" crowd that sprung up after The Suburbs won a 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year, you were mistaken. Instead they hired Zach Galifianakis.
The Canadian group toyed with their personas on their recent retro-tinged Saturday Night Live performance (assisted by Minnesota's own Mike Lewis on saxophone). They followed that up with a bizarre, celebrity-filled short concert film directed by Roman Coppola called Here Comes the Night Time, in addition to their Anton Corbijn-directed music video for new single "Reflektor." But the more peculiar and abstract that Arcade Fire get -- and the more they confuse the typical music fan -- the better it is for the creative industry as a whole.
Here's a group that was never about meeting music industry expectations. Released in 2004 at the height of the public's cravings for irony, the imaginative earnestness of Arcade Fire's landmark debut full-length, Funeral, contained few indications that the band would reach their current level of success. The sheer fact that a troupe of 8-10 musicians packed those small stages of their initial tours proved to be enough of a shock, especially at a time when minimal, two-piece garage rock bands were so in fashion.
But even then, you could tell that the band had a bit of a circus-like traveling sideshow element to them. With each step they took, Arcade Fire's playfully dramatic tendencies increased as their popularity grew.
The release of Neon Bible and the subsequent tour in support of the album found the band fully immersing themselves in the pseudo-religious vaudevillian tones, complete with a faux-church organ featuring prominently in their grandiose stage set. For portions of the show, frontman Win Butler loomed over the audience like a new-wave evangelist, with no easy answers for salvation, only the solace that we all find within pop music.
By the time the band got around to recording The Suburbs, they were done overtly using their own stories for artistic backdrops for the songs, and they incorporated the audience into the narrative. The band, along with director Chris Milk, released an interactive music video for "We Used To Wait," which used real Google maps images of the houses viewers grew up in within the clip itself, intimately personalizing the song for everyone in the process. It was a brilliant way to draw their fans into the creative process with the band, and also strikingly reinforced the wistful suburban themes of the record itself.
Theatrical artistic expression and creative reinvention are nothing new in rock music. (See Bob Dylan, David Bowie, U2, Sufjan Stevens, etc.) But the fact that Arcade Fire are still taking brazen risks with their performances -- as well as the way they are promoting their music itself -- is revitalizing a music industry increasingly reliant on lo-fi, DIY aesthetics. Or, conversely, there are some who firmly believe that the industry is all gimmicks to market artists without any clear talent other than that for generating controversy and headlines. (Miley Cyrus, for one.)
For either side of the artistic fence, if you love Arcade Fire or love to hate them, the fact that a pop band creating a short film that actively pokes fun at how they wish they were as big as Mumford and Sons, and lampooning how stuck-up they've become towards their roadies is good cinema. It reinforces how cool they actually have become -- and it plays well with disco-fused new music that sounds distinctly modern while being firmly rooted in the past.
Rock 'n' roll long ago ceded much of its boastful bombast and stylish conceits over to hip-hop, in exchange for a relentless self-seriousness that has weighed down much of the current scene with a dour air of solemnity. The band seems quite bored by it all as well, asking exasperatingly, "If that's what's normal now, I don't want to know" in their raucous new song, "Normal Person." Music lovers of all stripes needed Arcade Fire to lighten things up a bit and get weird. Art should make us have questions, and leave us without easy answers, and if we can nod our heads along to a song while trying to figure out what a band is on about, all the better.
Here Comes the Night Time:
Arcade Fire at Saturday Night Live:
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