Friday, March 23, 2007

Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible"

After writing this, I found myself revisiting the music of the Smiths. I used to go through Smiths phases every couple of years, one of those obsessive two-week long things when I'd feel eighteen again and reaffirm to myself that they really were one of the greatest bands ever. As for the most recent such phase ... I can't even remember when it was, and after listening to them over the past few weeks, it's probably not coincidental that I find their music has lost so much of its luster. I was never even *that* big of a Smiths fan, but the depth to which I embraced their music has been left in the past, likely forever. They'll never affect me that strongly ever again, and I'm perfectly fine with that. On the other hand, Joy Division (whose lyrics also affected me deeply) have a darker, rawer sound that has aged better and remains considerably more immune to my own aging process. But there are obvious elements to the Smiths music (teenage angst, awkwardness, and a million other things that have been written about in a million different ways) that render it best experienced under the age of twenty.

I have come to understand why the profile of "Strangeways Here We Come" keeps rising among Smiths albums -- it's relatively untarnished because the band split up once it released. It was never caned on the radio, never toured live, and didn't produce any of their most well-known singles. For years afterward, fans directed their thoughts toward the disappointment over the band's breakup (and speculation over when they might reunite) instead of on adulation for the album. Today, it's like the long lost Smiths album. One of their most underappreciated songs is "Never Had No One Ever" (even though it appeared on their most appreciated album, "The Queen Is Dead"), probably because it wasn't part of their everyday live set and never had a chance to be canonized as such. That song always felt like a breath of fresh air to me because it wasn't caned to death. "Strangeways" is a whole album of songs like that.

I read far too many breathless claims that such-and-such a band were the "New Smiths" (but I can't recall one involving a Canadian band, can anybody remember an example?), but let's try this on ... Arcade Fire are the new Smiths. "Funeral" effortlessly won over legions of indie hipsters, PFM diehards and NYT espresso sippers. It was hailed as the most gutwrenchingly emotional tour de force since Mozart's last gasps, the best example of the wasted, primal screams of teenaged youth since whoever. A couple of years on, it all feels a bit silly. We feel dumb for taking it all so seriously. Even I fell for the bait and gushed some crazy blubbering crap about teenage myth or whatever (I realized how dorky this sounded and toned it down a little when it came time to submit a blurb to ILM's best of 2004 list, but still). Everything from "Funeral" has been played, replayed, toured, retoured, onstage with Bowie, onstage with Bono, until eventually those same nine songs had been driven into the ground, sullied and smeared, luster forever lost.

So let me put it to you straight -- "Neon Bible" is really, REALLY damn good. Right now, at this very moment, I approach it like it's their "Strangeways Here We Come". It's the lost Arcade Fire album. These songs are all new and with those new songs, their shtick feels fresh again.

I certainly didn't expect this. "Black Mirror" leaked long ago and I wasn't too impressed, but as the slow-burning opener to the album it finally makes sense in context. "Intervention" started showing up in live sets a while back and I wasn't too enthused. It looks like Arcade Fire could be making similarly-themed remakes of "Born To Run" for many years to come. The Smiths work best when you're actually in the lyrical moment of the song -- like when you like some girl and are too shy to approach her. "Neon Bible" (and "Born To Run") succeeds by overcoming your more rational senses and making you long for being in those unenviable, difficult situations. "Windowsill" makes me want to long to move out of my parents' house all over again, but not before shooing away the teenage crush who keeps knocking on my window like something straight out of "Dawson's Creek". Why? We don't really want to return to those times, but the sense of joy and optimism in Arcade Fire songs are addictive. Or maybe it's because our younger selves didn't have lives so exciting. We didn't have the guts to make good on what "No Cars Go" promises, by making our escapist dreams come true and go far away from the safety of our homes.

Since I first heard "Neon Bible" (and started writing this), it has debuted at #2 on both the UK and US album charts, which is a sensational result that I never would have believed if it weren't true. And I'm starting to realize that nobody knows or cares what I'm talking about over here when I try to blab about that and explain why it's such an incomprehensible chart placing. Arcade Fire are a bona fide phenomenon. Say what?