Everything now

Notes on Arcade Fire from a Native Son

"I decided this band was the coolest thing ever to emerge from the bougie patch of reclaimed swamp I called home—a belief I more or less hold to this day."

By Morgan Kinney August 10, 2017

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Régine Chassagne and Win Butler of Arcade Fire being their quirky selves.

My memory of Arcade Fire begins with their first SNL appearance in 2007. This was just as The Office became a solid “thing,” and I mostly cared that Rainn Wilson was the host. But my father, the Cool Dad who played Björk on the way home from soccer practice, made sure I watched the musical guest.

Wilson introduced the band, and I didn't really know what to make of them. Régine Chassagne slammed the keys of an electric organ. Win Butler, the always-greasy frontman, stood in the middle flanked by his brother, Will. Mostly, I noticed how full the stage was. Lots of people, yes, but also megaphones attached to microphones and one of those orange emergency reflectors sitting on an amp. There was even a guy playing French horn in the back. 

After the song was over and Win smashed his guitar, my dad told me the Butlers grew up here in The Woodlands, just like me. I think that was when I decided this band was the coolest thing ever to emerge from the bougie patch of reclaimed swamp I called home—a belief I more or less hold to this day.

Yes, Arcade Fire are technically Canadian, and the band shares only a fleeting allegiance to America’s Hometown where brothers Win and Will spent their formative years. But that never stopped my geography teacher from bragging about the Butlers enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at her home, nor does it stop me from cushioning the inevitable “Where are you from?” by answering, in succession, “The Woodlands,” followed by an audible comma, and finally: “the town Arcade Fire is from.” Yes, I’m that guy.

Few would argue Houston left no impression on the Butlers. Their band, after all, wrote not only one but two tracks with “sprawl” in the title, components of an entire concept album named The Suburbs. If you want to be more explicit, I point to the group’s 2003 self-titled EP; “The Woodlands National Anthem” is track No. 4.

I saw Arcade Fire live at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in April 2011—their supposed “home show." Win told the crowd he worked as an usher there at the Pavilion, just like so many of my own friends, and it’s pretty adorable how starstruck 15-year-old me was by that fact. The rest of the night was a blur, and I most clearly remember that Chassagne squeezed her accordion with such panache that guitar seemed like the lamest instrument ever. My friend and I left the concert feeling shellshocked with awe, unable to say much of anything when his mom picked us up.

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Said Arcade Fire concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Cell phone cameras have clearly improved greatly since 2011.

Image: Morgan Kinney

Six years and a Grammy Award later, I’m still pretty much an Arcade Fire stan. That said, I was conflicted after reading the recent Pitchfork review of their newest album, Everything Now. The article, per usual, is too long and forces you to roll your eyes at least seven times before reaching the end, but there is one insightful moment that made me stop:

“Map the vocal melody on “No Cars Go” or “Sprawl II” with your finger in the air and you’ll arc it up and down in peaks and valleys. Do the same thing with the turgid and thoughtless “Creature Comfort” or “Peter Pan” or “Signs of Life” and your finger will barely move.”

For the non-kinetic learners in the back: This is Pitchfork’s way of saying the album is kind of boring, and I can’t disagree. Arcade Fire has always been as much about the acoustical pyrotechnics as it is about the lyrics. No group has done so much to elevate the lowly glockenspiel, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Funeral inspired more than a few kids to beg for organ lessons. Sonic quirkiness is what has made lanky white dudes jump and scream and smile along to Arcade Fire for more than a decade.

But on Everything Now, there’s not much to cheer for. “Signs of Life” mostly features weird Pharell-like hand clapping, and Pitchfork really lands a sick burn against “Chemistry,” accurately describing the track as “the sound of Billy Squier pouring warm milk over the concept of reggae.” I'll concede that there is a cool moment about halfway through “Creature Comfort” when a guitar riff launches into space and hangs there, and the wandering bass line of “Put Your Money on Me” could be the foundation of an awesome Arcade Fire song. But none of this excuses the central conceit of the album, a toothless comment on those darn millennials gettin’ sucked up by the phones! Repeatedly chanting “Infinite content / Infinite content / We're infinitely content” does not a social commentary make.

Crankiness aside, I still wear the T-shirt I bought that night at the Pavilion, even though it’s a bit small and has a bleach stain around the collar. I consider an old, dorky band shirt a sign that, as someone in their 20s, I’ve finally been around long enough for my childhood heroes to disappoint me. There’s a half-life for creative projects, and maybe Arcade Fire has finally reached theirs, as most bands do. Or maybe I'm just an unlucky fan who doesn't care for the new direction. After all, Everything Now immediately went to No. 1 on the charts this week

I don't really care which it is. Folks report Arcade Fire's live shows still rock, and the latest album, while uninspired, still has enough pygmy flute and twinkly flourishes to keep me satisfied. Especially when there's not a lot of culture in my suburban homeland to be proud of, I think I'll continue to latch onto my beloved gem, at least for the time being. 

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