Lighting a fire in the soul
The Christmas season is upon us, so this confession is perhaps timely. Arcade Fire's show in Dublin three years ago was pretty much a religious experience for me.
The Neon Bible, their second album from 2006, was a revelation, but their new album at the time, The Suburbs, was even better (it won the Grammy for 2011's Album of the Year); and Arcade Fire played much from The Suburbs that special night at the 02 Arena.
A friend of mine, dancing throughout the concert like a lager-lubricated zealot, was practically speaking in tongues about the messianic magic of lead singer Win Butler by the end of the show, which was as much an uplifting, communal celebration as a great outsider-rock show; it was like New Order at their peak playing with U2 during The Joshua Tree.
This friend had only just got me into the seven-piece post-indie-rock group from Montreal, Canada, and I was listening to their 2004 debut record Funeral like it was the answer to life's bigger questions I had been waiting for. The album was about, it seemed, death and the emotional pain that is a by-product that I was wrestling with at the time of my spiritual conversion to Arcade Fire in 2010 – my mother had just died .
Bono – who does a comic turn as himself in the Roman Coppola-directed 22-minute video for Here Comes the Night Time – pretty much summed up Arcade Fire's X Factor when he told the New York Times recently that their music "contains all the big themes and ideas that make all around them seem so vapid".
Indeed, as Lindsay Zoladz noted in her Pitchfork review of Arcade Fire's new album: "Even Reflektor's most straight-forward pop songs like Joan of Arc and We Exist are fractured and haunted, reminiscent of the way Achtung Baby summoned the ghosts that had always been dormant in U2"; adding intriguingly of Reflektor's co-producer – LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy – that "when people talk about Murphy's production on Reflektor, the Eno comparisons will be obvious, unavoidable, and earned." (Eno produced Acthung Baby, of course.)
Arcade Fire's new 75-minute double album is something to be savoured slowly, like its cover image – Rodin's sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice. Opening with the seven-minute single, also called Reflektor, Butler muses: "If this is heaven, I don't know what it's for ... I need something more." Then another Eno collaborator, a Mr David Bowie, joins in on the song around the five-minute mark, just as it is starting to sound like New Order's Perfect Kiss on piano. The anthemic It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) stirs the very soul, as does Joan Of Arc and We Exist.
The 11-minute-long Supersymmetry has Butler pondering once more the great imponderable: mortality. "I know you're in my mind/ But it's not the same as being alive," he sings.
Butler said recently that going to Haiti for the first time with his Haitian-Canadian wife Regine Chassagne was "the beginning of a major change in the way that I thought about the world. Usually, I think you have most of your musical influences locked down by the time you're 16. There was a band I felt like changed me musically in Haiti, just really opened me up to this huge, vast amount of culture and influence I hadn't been exposed to before, which was really life-changing," he said, adding that going to a carnival and hearing street music "with all of these horns and African percussion" had a lasting effect.
Butler recalls being on a beach at three in the morning, "and there was a voodoo drummer playing, and he had been dancing for like, four hours with kids and teenagers and they started to get the spirit. It really kind of makes you feel like a hack being in a rock band, having musical experiences like that."
Arcade Fire's new album Reflektor is out now.