Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.
For my sins I went on a trip down Memory Lane this last week, with what was for seven or eight years my favourite band, Arcade Fire. I played their songs and read articles about them every single day over that lengthy period and even considered applying for the British TV quiz competition ‘Mastermind’ with Arcade Fire as one of my ‘special subjects.’
Then they won ‘Album of the Year’ at the Grammys in 2011 for ‘The Suburbs’, beating the likes of Lady Gaga (‘The Fame Monster’,) Katy Perry (‘Teenage Dream’) and Eminem, who threw a tantrum. He’s still in recovery, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They were the first ever ‘indie’ band (still on the Merge label at the time) to win that award and whatever you might think about the Grammys that title is the highest accolade in the music business
The decision was so unexpected that Barbara Streisand was struck dumb momentarily and couldn’t get the album title out of her mouth.
I said they “were my favourite band.” That award proved to be their undoing, for me and many of their early fans, although they did recruit a whole lot more with their next album, ‘Reflektor’, which adopted a more dancey style under the influence of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who took on much of the production responsibility while previous producer Markus Dravs seemed to be sidelined.
‘Reflektor’ still had some excellent songs but the entirety of the philosophy and meaning evidenced by their three previous albums seemed to be lost and that continued to be the case in the subsequent albums ‘Everything Now’ and ‘We’ (2022).
Meanwhile their stage shows, which previously had been tastefully presented with thoughtful props and videos were blown out of all proportion with glittery costumes, lavish sets, and over the top presentation with many of the band wearing huge ‘bobble heads’ which made them look ridiculous.
You couldn’t help but get the impression that those bobble heads were representative of where their minds had collectively escaped to. That they could do anything they liked and their fans would henceforth buy into it.
So I want to cast my mind back to the period from 2004, when they released the debut album ‘Funeral’, influenced by the deaths of numerous family members while it was being written, via 2007, the second album ‘Neon Bible’, which was a greater commercial success than its introductory predecessor with high charting success internationally, and through to 2010’s ‘The Suburbs’.
Those three albums are in my view collectively three of the greatest ever written, and the one that stands out particularly to me is ‘Neon Bible’.
Band leader Win Butler and his brother Wil (who has since left the band) are American but had settled in Montreal, Canada, which is where most of the other (mainly Canadian) members had gathered and Win met his future wife there, the Haitian-Canadian Regine Chassagne.
Highly influenced by politics (I’m surprised he hasn’t become a politician but there is still time I suppose), Win Butler had begun to see the United States from the viewpoint of an outsider and was concerned about many of the events and trends within the country and those involving the US internationally.
Consequently there is a noticeable air of dread in song compositions and lyrics, and of dissonance in the music, obtained by using less common instrumentation such as the hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, accordion and pipe organ. The organ belonged to the Petite Église, a former church and Masonic Temple in Québec province which they bought out of the proceeds of ‘Funeral’. On the album track ‘Intervention’ it sounds like it belongs in a cathedral.
‘Intervention’ at Glastonbury Festival, 2007
(The slogan ‘Sak vide pa kanpe’ [An empty sack can’t stand up] on Win Butler’s guitar is an Haitian proverb)
The songs ranged over domestic and international subjects. ‘Intervention’ (the first song of theirs I ever heard, on BBC Radio 2, sat in a car waiting for a Manchester monsoon to stop) touches on war, foreign interference and religion with negative connotations throughout while the (renamed to avoid a possible lawsuit) ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ referenced parental control or the lack of it, TV preachers and get-rich-quick schemes, and ‘No cars go’, a song apparently written as a ballad by original band violinist Owen Pallett, described in powerful detail the consequences of the closure of a huge vehicle manufacturing plant to the east of Toronto with the loss of 10,000 jobs, and seen from the point of view of a child.
‘(Antichrist Television Blues’) at Les Eurockéennes, 2007
The final ‘marching’ section of ‘No Cars Go’, presumably representing the huge public demonstration against the closure, is one of the most stirring pieces of popular music ever made.
‘No Cars Go’ at Les Eurockéennes, 2007 (song starts at 00:45)
The stage show, during a gigantic worldwide tour that went through 2007 and into 2008, featured the seven full-time members of the band along with the Canadian school music teacher Marika Anthony-Shaw, who replaced Pallett, playing viola, and the virtuoso Colin Stetson and Kelly Pratt on horns.
I have written this many times but I’ll repeat it again and anyone is free to challenge me. That 10-man unit, described by a favourite rock critic of mine, Tim de Lisle, as like the 1970s Dutch football team with their ‘total football’ in the way they moved around the stage constantly swapping instruments, was the most dynamic live act I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.
And you can tell from the videos that they loved every second of every time they played these songs live.
Perhaps the best summary of the ‘Neon Bible’ album is one offered by Sabrina Ellis, the singer with American rock band A Giant Dog, which released a full album cover of ‘Neon Bible’ in 2019 and who said, “the themes in the album, of outrage at US leadership in the early 2000s, and a need to escape our social climate, sadly, remain pertinent today.”
And they do still, in 2023, as the world digs itself into an ever deeper pit of its own making, with God knows what end in sight.
I doubt that Arcade Fire could write another album like ‘Neon Bible’ now; indeed you could argue it represented that particular zeitgeist and no other.
But I would love them to reprise that tour, and with the same musicians if they could. I’m convinced it would sell out everywhere it went. And even though they are almost 20 years older now, they would restate a degree of intensity in live musical performance that is sadly all too often lacking among today’s young musicians who would undoubtedly learn greatly from the experience.
Since I wrote this article several people, including Heidi (see the comments below) have asked me why I did not mention the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at Win Butler last year, which prompted both Feist and Beck to withdraw from touring support functions.
The article specifically concerns the ‘Neon Bible’ album and its relevance today, and suggests that touring it again would be appreciated by many people.
I do not know the facts of the allegations anymore than anyone else does, and cannot do so unless and until they are aired publicly in a court of law, so do not feel qualified to comment on them.
It may be that they ultimately prove to be the band’s undoing, only time will tell. Other than that I can’t say.