The first three (Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs)
I first saw Arcade Fire performing Neon Bible at Glastonbury (though sadly only on the BBC broadcast). At the time it was released, I was working at the local supermarket at the weekends pushing trolleys around in the car park. I had a cheap – iRiver if I recall – MP3 player with space for a handful of albums that I would illicitly listen to. I remember having Coldplay’s Viva la vida, Magazine’s Real Life, and Neon Bible. Neon Bible, being clearly by the the best of these, I must have listened to all the way through hundreds of times. I still like it, and ‘My Body Is A Cage‘ is probably my favourite of their less synth-heavy songs.
I also bought Funeral, their first album, on CD and listened to it when I was allowed to borrow my dad’s car. At some point between these releases ‘The Arcade Fire’ did what many have done before and became ‘Arcade Fire’, though I’m still not sure which of these sounds better. Funeral is certainly one of their best — a mix of lots of unusual sounds, meaningful lyrics, and songs you can sing along to. Rebellion, and Wake Up stand out to me, but the whole album is free of any duds.
By the time of the release of The Suburbs (in my first summer as a student) I was beyond excited, and was counting down the days until I could hear the latest. I remember initially listening with trepidation (I think from a download from their website), and discussing with a friend the next day that we weren’t quite sure about it, but it would probably grow on us. This seems a bit mad now – The Suburbs is my favourite Arcade Fire album, and personally it’s hard to see it being topped. What really works for me is the whole theme of the album feels very consistent. Again, I like all the tracks, but check out the title track and Sprawl II if you haven’t listened before. Sprawl II also seemed to have a second wind a few years ago, and got picked up by the YouTube algorithm.
(The one time I’ve seen Arcade Fire was during their tour of The Suburbs, at the O2 in London. It’s always a bit less fun in a stadium, but the atmosphere was great and everyone was chanting the melody part of Wake Up all the way back on the tube.)
The next two (Reflektor and Everything Now)
The title track from Reflektor was released on YouTube well ahead of the album. I was on my own, towards the end of a long holiday, and must have watched it through a good ten times that night. Including David Bowie in a way which was a bit mysterious, a mad video with papier mache heads and a weird man dressed in mirrors, over seven minutes long? Amazing. When the album was released, I downloaded it from Spotify onto my phone, and took listening to it quite seriously, sitting apart from my friends on the bus to do so.
I thought the full album was a bit weaker than its predecessors, and now see it as the start of the band’s decline – but both Reflektor and Afterlife are two of my favourite single tracks from any of their albums. There was a cool performance on SNL, but with hype that didn’t quite match the quality of their music. I believe this was the tour where they asked everyone attending to come in a suit.
Getting high on their own supply (as they say in WE) really ramped up with Everything Now. My hopes were lower after some of the pretentiousness that followed Reflektor, and there were some concerning signs on the video and PR fronts. I was initially open to the album and thought although there had definitely been a downward trajectory in the band’s music, they were still making some good tracks, though bad albums (and how many bands is that not true of). I’ve liked this album less over time and it really made me fall out of love with the band. Listening again over the last week there are a couple of decent songs, but there are some I just genuinely find annoying, largely due to the heavy-handed theme. I’d decided this was probably the last of their albums I’d listen to.
WE – a reversal of fortunes?
So it was with lukewarm enthusiasm I clicked on the video for The Lightning Parts I and II on my YouTube home page. Shot in black and white, an accordion, Win with a cryptic message on his guitar that actually has no deeper meaning. I watched it a couple of times and thought it was ok, likely leading to another version their previous album with a few good tracks and a lot of guff. (This track has actually grown on me a lot – part II in particular is very catchy.)
I have since listened to WE a few times since I first put it on last week. It’s definitely an improvement, and though after initially growing on me with each listen, I can definitely hear some familiar flaws. A theme, this time mostly loneliness and a post-COVID world, is largely less heavy handed than the previous two albums. I’m still more of a fan of the fun synth. Age of Anxiety I & II, The Lightning I & II, and Unconditional I & II — all worth your time in my opinion. End of the Empire IV is sadly a bit of a low point.
Overall I’d say stronger than the past two albums, and fingers crossed the upward trend continues.
Still a fan
A happy side effect is that this album has really reignited my love for this band. I’ve been reminded why I used to them so often, and have also listened through to their previous five albums a couple of times.
I have been trying to put my finger on why I like them so much and have struggled to articulate it well: I think the male and female vocals are so well done, when at their best; fundamentally I like the pretentiousness of concept albums; it’s good pop; it’s a large and difficult to understand band which needs a complex diagram on wikipedia.
Apparently two more albums have already been written during lockdown, and I now look forward to hearing them. I missed them at Koko recently (here, until inevitably taken down), and the standing bit of the O2 visit in September is already sold out. So I’ve got my ticket for Lille, see you there!