Learning to Like…The Arcade Fire

flickr.com – Julio Enriquez

Ah, the Arcade Fire. Darling of the music critics, leader of the indie world, dark, brooding and complex. They seem right up my alley, the true alternative to the maddening hip-hop and lightweight electro-pop we’ve come to hate. The indie music site Pitchfork announced them to the world in 2004 with a gushing review of their debut album, Funeral. The review garnered a stellar 9.7 on the site’s 10-point scale, and within weeks, everyone was talking about them.

It’s six years and three albums later, and I just don’t get them.

Unlike my previous experiments with Joy Division and the Decemberists, though, I haven’t really given the Arcade Fire much of a chance. I tend to gauge music pretty quickly; if nothing catches my ear in the first minute – some intriguing chord change, a sing-song melody, a dramatic cello or haunting drum cadence – I lose interest. Never mind that your lyrics might be thought-provoking, or it’s part of some bigger concept that you’re pushing. It’s music, dammit! Bowl me over with your talent in producing wonderful sounds!

Let’s look at the opening paragraph of Pitchfork’s eight-paragraph review:

Ours is a generation overwhelmed by frustration, unrest, dread, and tragedy. Fear is wholly pervasive in American society, but we manage nonetheless to build our defenses in subtle ways– we scoff at arbitrary, color-coded “threat” levels; we receive our information from comedians and laugh at politicians. Upon the turn of the 21st century, we have come to know our isolation well. Our self-imposed solitude renders us politically and spiritually inert, but rather than take steps to heal our emotional and existential wounds, we have chosen to revel in them. We consume the affected martyrdom of our purported idols and spit it back in mocking defiance. We forget that “emo” was once derived from emotion, and that in our buying and selling of personal pain, or the cynical approximation of it, we feel nothing.

It sounds more like a term paper. The words “Arcade Fire” don’t appear until halfway through the second paragraph. What about songs? No mention until the third paragraph. Mind you, we’re almost halfway through the review at that point.

This is not to belittle the great writers at Pitchfork; this is how they had to explain what they got out of the album. And I applaud them for their effort in squeezing this interpretation out of the album. But as with the Decemberists, I feel as if groups like the Arcade Fire are forcing us to analyze and parse the songs and appreciate their cleverness instead of just enjoying the music.  There are just some people who appreciate the beauty of a Monet painting without having to analyze a Jackson Pollock and search for some hidden, complex meaning.

And there may be something there. Pitchfork references “an organ, undulating strings, and repetition of a simple piano figure” in the opening track. It sounds promising; maybe I have dismissed them too quickly.

So let’s begin a new experiment: Over the next few days I’ll be listening to nothing else but the Arcade Fire. I’ll digest their three albums, report my progress in a series of posts, with a final verdict coming in a week or so.

Here’s hoping it goes better than my first two experiments.

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