Still, I meant it when I said I admire their ambition. The culture’s getting awfully casual; somebody’s got to overreach. I felt like Neon Bible overshot by a mile, too. Maybe I’ll always like every second Arcade Fire album. That’s not a bad pattern. It has its own rhythm, a likeably dependable relationship, one-two, one-two.
The other day I got a puzzled message from my friend Mani Haghighi in Tehran (he makes movies there): “Am I wrong to think the new Arcade Fire album is really, really bad? What was so original about them was the way they avoided cheap or everyday irony, in favor of wacky biography. This is just ironic, knowing, clever, sophisticated bullshit.”
That isn’t fair, but it helped me think about what would be fair.
There still is “wacky biography” here—personal narrative that isn’t phony or secondhand, in “Reflektor” and “It’s Never Over” and “Afterlife,” about sustaining love over time, via fallible communication, and under scrutiny. Butler sings, “We fell in love when I was 19/ and now we’re staring at a screen.” Later he reiterates, “I met you up upon a stage/ Our love in a reflective age.” Butler’s and Chassagne’s real-life marriage (they had their first child this spring) always has been the vicarious romance of Arcade Fire; sometimes they are obviously singing about it and sometimes one can’t help but think so. You can dispute the legitimacy of the projection, but they’re clearly aware of the charge it carries. They invoke it and they cloak it. This is mystique, charisma. It’s even a very straight sort of camp. (Arcade Fire doesn’t tell jokes but there is humor in the energy between its members.)
But that intimacy gets drowned out in the sawing on about screens and texting and Twitter, the current peeves of all professional scolds. Arcade Fire can’t escape its nature as an Internet-era band, so the critique comes reflecting, deflecting, dejecting back. I know they know this. They know I know it. Knowing doesn’t break the circuit. Spending three years using sophisticated recording technology to criticize technology is modern rock’s most exhausted routine. These songs arrived to me, as they likely did to you, via download. Rather than something being lost in transmission, it’s as if the stream accumulated too much flotsam en route—the flourishes, the nonissues. Meanwhile the distinct individuals we became attached to seem to pixelate and blur. It’s not cheap but expensive irony.
But the vicarious romance isn’t over. I still care a lot about Win and Régine and their friends. I’m waiting for the signal to phase back in.
We haven’t talked about Haiti yet, the experience Butler has said shaped this record. My friend Ann Powers, who writes and talks about music for NPR, threw out an idea on Facebook this week: “Bands who make earnestness their rocket fuel get around to more complicated and danceable rhythms on their third, fourth, fifth albums. This usually involves some reckoning with the racialized ‘primitive.’ “ She pointed to the Beatles and the Stones with Indian and Moroccan music, and Led Zep with “Kashmir,” and the Clash (maybe more organically) with Jamaica and obviously Talking Heads with Remain in Light and U2 with Achtung Baby and Pop.
“That concept/style of encounter stubbornly endures,” Ann said, “despite so much evidence accrued that whatever source the rockers mine (blues, soul, Africa, the Caribbean; hell, disco) is so much farther from primitive than what the rockers were doing before.”
Again, fair and not fair.
I don’t think Arcade Fire is being condescending toward Haiti, where Chassagne’s family roots are and where the band’s spent serious time and has done valuable relief work. One of the things that makes “Here Comes the Night Time” a relief on this record is that its lyrics, about missionaries disrespecting the deep knowledge of the Haitians they’re supposed to aid, and about island night life, all feel fully lived in and imagined, the opposite of the vagueness I’ve complained about.
But Arcade Fire always has had something of a weakness for idealizing authenticity. When Butler speaks excitedly of losing context and getting down to basics, he has the tone of the traveler declaring he has come upon something “real.” For Western artists in these encounters there’s always that precarious balance between savoring and seizing.
I think the impulse for Ann’s lineage of rockers is often less to “go primitive” than to go somewhere. Go rockabilly. Go synth. Go orchestral. Go dissonant. Lou Reed did it, Neil Young did it, not so much with cultural borrowing as with quick changes of style. It’s a risk. People get annoyed. But the rule is to fail big, to fail better; to half-fail never.
The trouble with Arcade Fire’s touches from Haiti (and Jamaica, where much of Reflektor was recorded) may be that they do it too gingerly. They’re too smart and tasteful to appropriate too blatantly. But in some ways at this point that timidity can be more offensive than a bolder raid might be, as if Haiti were sugar that might melt in Arcade Fire’s mouth. Go ahead and drum on the ribs of a hundred million ancestors. They can take it. They wrote more songs than you ever will.
Mostly I wanted to tell Bruce Springsteen that I already knew about Woody Guthrie and I want to tell Arcade Fire that I already knew about dancing. Maybe Reflektor sounds different if you didn’t, but who doesn’t know about dancing? (I know someone might answer, “Arcade Fire fans.” But I didn’t say dancing well. Just dancing.)
So dance with us. Don’t dance down to us. Here endeth the lesson.
Arcade Fire is dancing. The dance is just beginning. Go on, Arcade Fire. Don’t charge by the hour. Dance on top of the clock. Crack its face. Time isn’t holding us. Time isn’t after us. Dance, Arcade Fire, dance …
TODAY IN SLATE
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Happy Constitution Day!
Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.