One night near the end of April this year, my wife and I will be on the floor of the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, with several good friends and 20,000+ other people who have gathered for an Arcade Fire show. At some point that night, the band will play "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" from their latest album, Reflektor. About three minutes into that slow-building song—which foregrounds a lulling synth and Win Butler's mournful vocals over rolling drums—there will be a sudden break, a beat of ba-dum, ba-ba-dum, and an implicit invitation for the crowd to toss up their hands, lift their voices in one accord, and shout-sing the chorus: "I know there's a way / we can make 'em pay / Think it over and say / 'I'm never going back again.'"
A few minutes later we'll sing along, and probably sway, to a lamenting bridge: "We know there's a price to pay / For love in a reflective age." Tens of thousands of people in Denver, enjoying an anthem laced with lament, whose layers of sound (blended by music producer and LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy) are matched to layers of cultural heritage combining Greek myth, Kierkegaard, and The Beatles. (That song's finale will raise our voices in another kind of chorus, a chant of Orpheus-meets-Paul McCartney: "La la -- La la la -- La la la la la -- La la la la.") I can hardly wait.
More than any other major band working today, Arcade Fire is a rock band for our time. Their songs concern some of the most familiar features of our age—digital media, suburban blight, individualistic spirituality—attached in lead singer Win Butler's lyrics to universal themes—alienation, friendship, religious belief, childhood, war, play, love. Arcade Fire is a Very Serious Band, you might say, with a lot on its mind, known for calling us together to proclaim rock anthems about our us-ness. Their soundscapes are expansive but filled with delicate details, and likewise, even their biggest anthems—"Wake Up" from 2004's Funeral, "Keep the Car Running" from 2007's Neon Bible, "Sprawl II" from 2010's Grammy-winning The Suburbs—draw our attention to the quotidian, especially the quotidian of our memories. Arcade Fire songs are about the homes where our lives are lived, the parents who named us, the friends we've found and those we have left behind. They sing about all of us by inviting us to reflect on ourselves.
A Mission Statement
If that sounds cloying and pretentious, okay, fine, but at least the band is on the level. On Reflektor, a song called "Flashbulb Eyes" asks, "What if the camera really do [sic] take your soul? Oh no!" Another, "Normal Person," asks, "Is anything as strange as a normal person?" and ends up admitting, "I've never really ever met a normal person." See? Pretty direct. Many of Butler's lyrics are more evocative and indirect than those, but straight stories are a band specialty.
They are also one of a handful of popular musical acts today who can call their own shots and release exactly the music they want to release, in exactly the way they want to release it. For Reflektor, their first album in three years, Arcade Fire embarked last fall on a prolonged, odd-angled, multi-media promotional campaign. They performed secretive shows under the moniker "The Reflektors." They played (or appeared to play) as paper mache dolls at some live shows and on The Colbert Report. They streamed their whole album to YouTube, but just for one day. They worked with Google Chrome and longtime collaborator Vincent Morisset on a user-responsive web video for the album's title track.