Not Enough Protection from the Song

Matthew Derby
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Illustration by Matthew Derby

We are dependent on the plenitude of products and services available to us that meet only our lowest expectations. We are thankful for the predictable fallibility of our snacks, our headgear, our earth-moving equipment, because their innate mediocrity allows us to ignore them, to focus on more pressing issues, like why we are always tired, or why our neighbors are always banging sheets of metal in their yard. Otherwise, we would be stymied by our own wonder and amazement at everything. We are aware, for example, that the world’s greatest corn chip has already been eaten, long ago, by a shirtless man in Duluth, but it is this knowledge that actually allows us to enjoy corn chips of a quality that would, in an earlier economic mode, bring shame on an entire community. So too, with the greatest golf shirt (Shenzhen, 1947), PowerPoint presentation (Prague, 1952), and salad dressing (Seekonk, 2003): these models of excellence are the magnetic north of our aesthetic compass, but we move through the world secretly relieved that the majority of objects we handle just barely echo their greatness. Occasionally, however, a work of art will alight somewhere along the moving front of the global capitalist empire and pierce its Kevlar-coated surface, creating such a colossal sucking void that we are forced to take notice. When and where such a puncture occurs is manifestly incalculable, which is precisely what makes the object capable of such disruption.

The Arcade Fire consists of a group of startled young North American citizens who probably had little idea that Funeral, the album they created and assembled for Merge Records in 2004, would generate a storm front of such magnitude in the world of popular music. The proof: They booked a tour of small, cruddy bars across the United States and Canada in advance of the album’s release, expecting only moderate attendance. The critical and popular response to Funeral was so overwhelming, however, that they were forced to negotiate larger venues on the fly, as they traveled, playing to bigger crowds in each city, sometimes booking multiple nights at the same venue, just to meet the demand. It is likely that the cause of this spontaneous fervor was the prerelease viral spread throughout the internet of the album opener, ‘”Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” a diminutive masterwork of nervous, baroque pop that unfolds patiently, never reaching its fever pitch until the final, explosive moments. “Tunnels” begins tentatively with a scattershot spray of notes from a distant, underwater piano that suggests nothing of the song’s looming collage of styles and motifs—each individually familiar, perhaps, but refreshing and disturbing in this particular configuration. Most notably, the disco beat (if you have heard only one disco song in your entire life you have heard this beat), which has been pillaged elsewhere in recent years for comedic or retro-ironic effect, is, in “Tunnels,” flushed of its excessive references, leaving only the twitching, infectious heart. The mildly absurdist narrative involves two young people living in a future ice age, escaping the domestic tension generated by their parents by tunneling through the frozen earth to meet in the center of town at night—it is a sweet and desperate scenario, one that manages to preserve its emotional core by diluting the sentimental with carefully staged orchestration.

The rest of Funeral is similarly elegant and complex—it is a deeply nuanced affair, and yet its complexities do not immediately reveal themselves. Its expansiveness, linked themes, and the meticulous nature of its production recall the cool grandiosity of Radiohead’s O.K. Computer, although instead of broadcasting from space or from some depressed robot’s forehead, Funeral emerges from the earth itself. More important, it is, like O.K. Computer, an album that teaches us why we listen to music in the first place—to work our way—coupling, fighting, gnashing our teeth—into the deepest truths.

I first saw the Arcade Fire in Cambridge at the front end of their tour, just before they began moving their shows to larger venues, but after word about Funeral had spread. They played on a stage that was approximately the size of a napkin, in a club that was exactly the size of a restaurant-style napkin holder. To say “the club was packed” would do a grave injustice to the people who survived the event, each of whom is now more aware than ever of the full spectrum of scents it is possible for a human body to spurt from its pores when under duress. There was a palpable tension in the air, as though something dangerous or terrible was about to happen. The band climbed onto the stage somehow, possibly on the backs of several obliging audience members, and launched into a beefy, chaotic version of the Funeral track “Wake Up,” which features what sounds like a chorus of young, neutered boys singing from a mountaintop observatory. For the live version, the band leaned out over the edge of the stage and howled the melody at the crowd, which shrank back in a lumbering wave of sweat, gristle, and threadbare vintage shirts, only to surge forward again, crying out in response. This cannot possibly sound like a compliment, which it is, but the chaotic, fervent night had all the trappings of a public burning, wherein the Arcade Fire were the fierce, indignant victims, railing out against the injustice of their sentence as the crowd tossed whatever would burn into the conflagration. Any rock show worth its weight should leaven the audience’s enthusiasm with a bit of confusion and old-school terror, and the band dealt each out in spades by flinging themselves around, tripping over their equipment, and, occasionally, wrestling. Nobody knew, from moment to moment, what was coming next. To improve on the excellence of the show, the band would have to have given away free pies.

Because so few New Englanders got to see the Arcade Fire at this show, the band scheduled a return visit in February as the final night of their tour. They played at a venue called The Roxy, which is apparently normally used as a dance hall. This was a clean, efficient place where, on other nights, thick-necked men in pressed white shirts and slacks sipped from disposable plastic tumblers while their companions shuffled to eighties music on an elevated dance floor. I had to climb several flights of stairs, push my way through a considerable cluster of men waiting to urinate, and circle the merchandise table before I could see the stage, where a small, thin boy who resembled a Gleaming the Cube-era Christian Slater performed a set of songs composed for violin and delay pedal. His name was Owen Pallett, performing under the moniker Final Fantasy. At the end of his set, he played a cover version of the Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go,” trading in the urgent wave of guitars of the original for a delicate, pizzicato skeleton, which he played live, looped, and played over, adding several distinct and innovative layers until he had built up an impressive wall of strings. I have never before seen an opening act perform a cover version of a song that would later be performed by the headlining act, but Pallett’s version was so irreducibly distinct that it acted more like the soft, rearview-mirror image of an approaching semi than an alternate take.

The crowd at The Roxy was uniformly young, well-coiffed, and well-behaved. Pale men with hair in their eyes repeatedly took cell phones out of their pockets, grimaced at the tiny, luminescent displays, and then pocketed them again. Shortly before the Arcade Fire’s set, a woman in front of me turned to show a friend the bird she’d embroidered on the back of her denim jacket. The friend asked if she would embroider something for him. She said of course she would. He gestured along the entire length of his pant leg, going into an elaborate description of the image of a dolphin rearing up out of the water, the way they did at Sea World. He asked how much she would charge for this. As the crowd cheered at the first sight of the Arcade Fire descending to the stage from a second-floor balcony area, she shouted, “Four cookies.” “What?” the friend shouted back. “Four cookies,” she repeated. The friend, looking puzzled, shouted, “That’s it?” but the woman was already staring straight ahead, balancing on tiptoe, straining for a glimpse of the band through the humid thicket of contemporary American haircuts.

The Arcade Fire, dressed in the same formal wear they’d worn at their last performance (one hopes Merge has given them a dry-cleaning stipend), dutifully armed themselves with gear and started their set, once again, with “Wake Up.” In this larger, arguably more hospitable arena, they were more easily and instantly recognizable as a band, as opposed to a heretical cult burning at the stake. There they were, seven talented young people performing a series of quality songs for a paying audience of about nine hundred. It’s possible that this is precisely what the audience had come to see, but it wasn’t clear that this is what the Arcade Fire wanted. The band members seemed tired—undoubtedly, as they had been touring constantly for close to five months, and they must have been able to taste, on this last night, the forgotten language of unaccounted-for time, waking up late on a weekday in the clean, snowswept city of Montreal (where they live), buying fruit at a market with a loved one. But they also seemed bewildered and frustrated at the thing they’d become: famous. It was like the attention they were getting was slowly working its way into their consciousness, inhibiting their ability to properly lose their shit. At the earlier show, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Richard Parry had donned a motorcycle helmet in order to play the percussion part for “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” on his forehead, on the wall, on an orphaned floor tom, and on some sort of electronic device I couldn’t see because of the man in the porkpie hat standing directly in front of me. At one point, Parry struck himself in the face, and for the rest of the set he performed with a thin rivulet of blood running down his cheek. Meaning that the motorcycle helmet was not enough protection from the song. At The Roxy, though, the appearance of the helmet was more theatrical than utilitarian, and Parry seemed to sense this. He held back, or was held back, by the sudden, crushing omniscience of the phenomenon they’d unwittingly put into motion. The others, too, were more reserved, more aware, maybe, of the audience’s gaze. Butler mentioned giddily midway through their set that in New York, David Byrne had joined the band onstage for a cover version of the Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place).” David Bowie, apparently, had looked on from the balcony at the same show. This sudden awareness that towering, influential figures might be lurking in the recesses of any given crowd, along with balding, knife-sharpening critics, seemed to tame the band’s earlier proclivity toward barely controlled chaos.

Throughout the night they interspersed all of the songs from Funeral with earlier work, a new song, and a gorgeous, confident cover of “Born on a Train” by the Magnetic Fields. Win Butler sang the lines “I’ve been making promises I know I’ll never keep / One of these days I’m going to leave you in your sleep” like a man dying from gravel consumption, which teased out a desperation I’d never detected in the original. His wife, Regine, whose relentless enthusiasm and captivating stage presence could conceivably be used to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, took over vocal duties for “Haiti” and “In the Backseat,” the elegiac album-closing track about losing one’s family members that signaled the end of the evening. The song reared up slowly, stormed with a lumbering intensity, and then disintegrated, giving way to a simple wordless melody, which the band incanted repeatedly, even after the signals had died from all of their instruments. They got down off the stage in single file, instruments in hand, and wound their way through the audience, still chanting the ruminative fragment. In contrast to some of the other theatrical flourishes they’d relied on during their set, this slow, snaking movement through the crowd worked a powerful, eerie magic, tempering the scattered cheers with something more somber and, ahem, funereal. They disappeared up the steps and through a partition in the balcony, and suddenly we were left by ourselves in the half-light, an audience without a target on which to focus, without a band to cheer back onstage for a second encore. In the ensuing murmur, someone yelled out “Canada sucks!” and then, to his friends, “Someone has to yell that any time a Canadian band plays.” We filed out of the venue and out onto the street, where snow fell heavily, as in a souvenir globe. We milled briefly in groups and then dispersed, confused but elated, still burning with whatever primal element any great, powerful music ignites inside us.

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