Ever since it burst upon the world six years back, Arcade Fire hasn't been a band whose place in music you could track on a standard cultural GPS.
Instead, you'd need multiple maps, a kind of anthropological atlas. Its geographic scope would range from artsy Montreal epicentre Mile End to the outskirts of Houston to the shantytowns of Port au Prince. It would include headings such as Family Ties, Social Circles and Generational Divides; Venn diagrams of genre overlap; trajectories of spiritual inquiry; and flows of income redistribution.
Also handy, given the group's preoccupation with personal and civilizational mortality, might be blueprints of the Underworld. What's more, on each map you'd have to triangulate seemingly mutually exclusive co-ordinates.
Before making this record, I felt the least connected I ever had to where I grew up and where I lived the longest. Win Butler
This is a seven-strong Canadian collective led by an American, 30-year-old Win Butler. He founded it with his wife, Régine Chassagne, the Quebec-born daughter of Haitian refugees. Their best songs locate places (peaks in the clouds, or maybe caverns in the earth) where elation and fear, estrangement and communalism, grandeur and the homespun somehow become one.
And while methodically rejecting commercialism and sticking with an indie label (the small but illustrious Merge Records, of North Carolina), Arcade Fire has been paradoxically successful - not on the mainstream-radio level of, say, Nickelback, but leagues beyond other baggy northern collectives such as the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene.
Arcade Fire's first album, 2004's Funeral, was named the best of the decade by Rolling Stone, and second only to Radiohead's Kid A by Pitchfork. Its second, Neon Bible, in 2007, entered the Billboard charts at No. 2. As veteran Canadian music writer Larry LeBlanc puts it, "They shook up the industry worldwide. They unrolled the cusp of this non-traditional-exposure route."
Yet with their third album, The Suburbs, due out Tuesday, Arcade Fire seems, on some levels, to be decamping even from its place as the very model of the 2000-something indie band.
In the early days, the group seemed to have sprung direct from the skull of post-2001 youth culture when it was recuperating from multiple, disillusioning blows. As if to emphasize the point, the players often wore motorcycle helmets onstage so they could beat each other with drumsticks as a perversely jubilant form of percussion.
It had its throng of members (the core seven easily expand to 10 or 12 on tour), its multi-instrumental bombast (accordions, violins, parade drums, glockenspiels, myriad guitars, yelping vocal leads and children's-chorus harmonies), its social and poetic high-mindedness, and a guerrilla-theatre spirit that made shows a mix of schoolyard romp and pagan purification rite.
Toronto's Owen Pallett, whose link as string arranger and guest violinist with Arcade Fire gave a jet boost to his own solo career, recalls, "Sometimes you just know, 'Oh my God, this is going to be really, really popular.' "
The embrace of Funeral took the band around the globe and left its members comfortably well-off - this year they've pledged, for instance, to match fan donations of up to $1-million for Haitian aid. They are also, less comfortably, well-known: To hear Butler talk of the Internet is to hear a battered-down man, likely due to some of the fan backlash against the relatively dense dourness of the God-and-Bush-bothered Neon Bible.
And unnervingly well-connected: Arcade Fire has shared stages with David Bowie, David Byrne, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, who, like Peter Gabriel, has covered one of its songs.
This month, when the band was invited by YouTube to inaugurate a new streaming-concert series with the second of its two shows next week at New York's Madison Square Garden (Madison Square Garden!), Butler was able to get a "major, life-long inspiration" - Terry Gilliam, former Monty Python animator and maker of Brazil - to direct it. Just by asking.
"I thought obviously he'd say no," Butler said by phone from Montreal this week. "But he said, 'Sure, why not?' "
Little wonder Butler sings, on the new record, "Now our lives are changing fast/ Hope that something pure can last."
Drafted during a year-long break and recorded over the course of another year, the new album is the work of an ensemble that's been through transformations and needed to stand back and process. Needed, in other words, to redraw its own map.
"I very much see it as trying to connect where you're from and where you are, to have that kind of make sense," says Butler. "Before making this record, I felt the least connected I ever had to where I grew up and where I lived the longest."
That would be the Houston suburbs, where Butler (along with his brother Will, also in Arcade Fire) spent his childhood and early adolescence. "I always felt kind of like a tourist," he says. "My dad was from Maine and my mom was from California. It definitely never felt like we were from there.... So I think this [disorientation]goes back further than stuff from the band."
Much of the album is taken up by this Proustian memory trip. There's scarcely a song among its 16 tracks that doesn't stress such words as suburb, town, city, houses, roads, sprawl. Butler says the fact that Arcade Fire albums each centre on a theme has less to do with conceptual planning than with his instinctive writing process, which spawns an urgent desire to attack a question from multiple angles.
What on the surface could seem an exercise in nostalgia turns out to be more about wrestling with the past's losses and portents, rediscovering the muddled but alert child who was father to the man who only then might have a shot at being a worthy father to another child. Early on, Butler croons, "So can you understand/ Why I want a daughter while I'm still young?/ I wanna hold her hand/ And show her some beauty before this damage is done."
The Suburbs also casts a more jaundiced eye on the "modern kids" (someone else might have said hipsters) who "seem wild" but "are so tame" ( Rococo), "standing with their arms folded tight" ( Month of May) and "screaming 'sing the chorus again.' " ( We Used to Wait).
Butler's not necessarily turning against his audience: In those songs, he also catches his own arms folded and his own voice shouting for a chorus; in City With No Children, he suspects himself of being a "millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount." But he is raising the bar from some past songs that relied on youthful tribalism as refuge enough.
Does that have anything to do with a zeitgeist shift after the election of Barack Obama, for whom the band actively campaigned? Butler hesitates. "All music is connected to the times you live in," he finally says. "It's affected by the cultural moment."
But it's also a musical shift. While Arcade Fire albums have consistently expanded in stylistic diversity, The Suburbs makes a more decisive assertion: This isn't just some conceptual art project, it says; this is a rock band, and that means something. On previous tours, the group dressed in formal wear, and then in military gear. This year, they're in denim.
The record opens with barrelhouse piano that wouldn't feel out of place on a 1970s country-rock album. Much of its hour-long running time is spent on spare, succinct guitar riffs and figures that recall the Traveling Wilburys (which included two of Butler's heroes, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison), Neil Young or mid-period U2. Others rest on vintage pulses reminiscent of 1980s British synth-pop.
"My oldies are Depeche Mode and the Cure," Butler explains. "That kind of put a stamp on me. John Lennon always wanted his vocals to sound like Elvis, Buddy Holly, the music he was listening to when he was 15. Artists never really escape that. You don't choose what your inspiration is going to be."
For its climax, The Suburbs reaches for a truly unprecedented Arcade Fire sound. A skittering dance anthem sung by Chassagne, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), calls to mind Euro-disco hit machines Ace of Base or Boney M.
"It's always been a goal to have that flexibility, to play whatever we want," says Butler. "The Beatles could do a reggae-sounding song and not be a reggae band. I always wanted not to be pigeonholed in the kind of music we do. This is only our third record. There's lots of music we haven't gotten to yet."
You catch here a glimpse of the secret-classicist workhorse behind Arcade Fire's iconoclastic reputation. Perhaps The Suburbs heads the way Butler might have gone long ago if he hadn't been diverted by the bohemian ambience of his adopted Montreal - where, of course, he also found community, purpose and love.
Wherever it turns out to stand in the band's oeuvre, The Suburbs is ultimately - as Butler sings on Month of May, its ravingest rocker - just "2009, 2010 … a record of how I felt then."
"I think Arcade Fire understand who they are," says writer LeBlanc. "They're not overplayed, not overexposed."
And there are many more landings to be charted.
With a report from Katie Hewitt.
Arcade Fire play the Osheaga Festival in Montreal tonight, and Centre Island in Toronto on Aug. 14. The live stream of their Madison Square Garden concert hits YouTube next Thursday at 10 p.m. ETReport Typo/Error
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