When I first heard “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” Coldplay’s rather mediocre new single (and one that Robyn just bettered ten-fold), I couldn’t help but think to myself: now that we have Arcade Fire, why do we need Coldplay anymore?
Not to suggest that, musically, the two bands are interchangeable or anything of that sort, or that an assessment of their artistic merits would end up a draw.
No, the point I was pondering was that Coldplay’s rapid rise to inexplicable super-popularity seems to speak less to the quality of the band’s work and more to a cultural need for a big, important rock band – emphasis on the big.
When punk blew up, and when new wave and post-punk created new narratives of “underground” and “mainstream,” it created a division in rock music along lines of coolness and credibility. The result: no longer would writers, critics and fans look to the top of the charts for innovation. In rock music, the ideas, sounds, themes and styles worth celebrating would have to push their way up from below. Sometimes these bands would remain cult favourites; other times, like with grunge, the culture was simply too big to ignore, and a broader nerve was tapped. This oppositional dynamic, though, created an opportunity for bands that could take these underground sounds and styles and synthesize them into a populist, crowd-pleasing pop format.
After all, as much as the coolest kids will hate to admit it, there’s something undeniably thrilling about the shared experience, about gathering together with thousands of others and belting along to your favourite song. Also: it created a sense of accomplishment, that one of our bands—a band that made art, not just commerce—could reach a similar plateau as all the pap you heard on the radio. What’s more (and others may disagree here), I’ve always considered the quest to be a populist band—heck, maybe even a popular one—to be a noble venture, so long as it’s done with passion and a healthy dose of integrity. Music is supposed to connect with people, after all.
So we had U2, who found the stadium sound buried in post-punk. When they fell into a void of self-indulgence, we had R.E.M. turn college-radio jangle into arena fodder for a couple of years. If grunge was too oppositional to build bridges, we then had Radiohead, who through The Bends and OK Computer appeared prepared to seize the mantle of “big, important rock band.”
It’s no coincidence, in my mind, that Kid A and Coldplay’s Parachutes came out the same year; Radiohead chose to abdicate populism entirely and follow their own interests (thrilling, of course, in their own way), and suddenly rockist types needed someone—anyone—to fill the void. Even as someone who grudgingly admires Coldplay, even I have to admit that the band always felt a bit like a placeholder—a temporary hire to the position that we tolerated while we waited for the real deal.
If you had asked me in 2004 if Arcade Fire was poised to become that big, important rock band, I would have laughed. Funeral was a sensation, no question, but it wasn’t a broader cultural phenomenon. It was ours, a secret that we willingly and thrillingly shared, but not one that I think anyone expected would lead the band beyond cult status. There were hints, though: that iconic Coachella debut in 2005 proving the band was more massive-audience ready than you might expect, for example. And in hindsight, even with its intimate, tinny production, Funeral sounds like a superstar record, and it’s no wonder that its anthems are still the centre of the band’s live show.
But as someone who’s been with this band since the early days of Funeral, there’s still something a bit bewildering about being outside with almost 8,000 people—pretty huge for a one-band show in Halifax—and realizing that that Arcade Fire has become that big, important rock band. It’s not just the Grammys and Junos and Brit Awards and number-one albums and year-end list achievements…it’s that they’ve managed to make the past 30 years of independent rock music come together into something that connects broad, and connects hard.
Last night’s show at Alderney Landing literally had a crowd that ranged in age from eight to 80. It was filled with personality types from hipsters to bros. You could tell that some people were uber-fans, while others may have actually only learned of the band through the headlines. And all of them found something worthwhile in the band’s fusion of lingering sadness with thrilling release.*
*Admittedly, the show was also very white, but that gets us into a whole other complicated discussion about rock music and culture. Maybe some other time.
For me, the thrill of last night’s show at Alderney Landing was seeing the band almost a year to the day that they formally kicked off their touring for The Suburbs by headlining Montreal’s Osheaga festival. Back then, The Suburbs wasn’t even released yet, so you had an audience unfamiliar with much of the material and a band still working its way through it. Case in point: the three songs Arcade Fire played that night for the first time—“Deep Blue,” “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”—all sounded a bit shaky, and only the last of those has stayed in the set throughout most of 2011.
Now, though, The Suburbs tour is a well-oiled machine. I still wish that the band would mix up their set with a bit more Neon Bible material—as with most shows this tour, only “No Cars Go,” “Keep the Car Running” and “Intervention” make the cut—but there’s no question that, given the themes and scale of The Suburbs’ best material, Funeral’s anthems make a heck of a lot more sense in terms of the pairing. But most importantly: the newer songs make a huge impact. The audience cheers and belts along to songs like “Rococo” almost as much as they do to “Keep the Car Running” or “Crown of Love.”
And that’s what struck me about the concert: even though we live in an age of YouTube, when we can watch any concert footage (good or bad quality) whenever we want, and when audience members may well have seen the band perform every one of these songs online, there was still a buzz in the air last night. I really enjoyed Tara Thorne’s take on the band in this week’s Coast, but what’s interesting about considering Arcade Fire a “working band” with a “job” is that, somehow, it never seems that way in the moment.
Even though the band has spent a year with this material, playing all over the world, and are now on something of a victory lap, there’s a freshness to the experience that still hasn’t worn off. Personality helps; Win’s joking apology to all of those in rural Nova Scotia whose houses didn’t show up on Google Maps for their Wilderness Downtown multimedia video was a highlight, as was the shoutout to Tyler Messick of Halifax’s Museum Pieces.
But mostly, it’s that the jubilation, the exhilaration of THOSE SONGS doesn’t seem to disappear, on our part or theirs. Richard and Will may not wear motorcycle helmets to beat each other up anymore during “Laika,” but they still bang the shit out of every drum they can find. They may trade “Power Out” for “Month of May” to transition into “Rebellion (Lies),” but that bass riff kicking in still leaves you a bit breathless. Those “woaaaaaaahs” in “No Cars Go” and “Wake Up” may be near-nightly occurrences, but the band seems to remember that, for this crowd, it may be their first time singing along.
All of which leads me to “Sprawl II,” The Suburbs’ greatest moment and one of the best songs the band has yet laid to tape. A year ago, at Osheaga, its freshness was its failing: it was tucked it into the encore, where it deserves to be, but neither the crowd or the band had quite figured it out yet. Now, it’s earned its place as the show’s closer. And yet, a year of work and toil hasn’t rendered the song staid; on the contrary, last night it was a revelation. Finally, the keyboards hit hard, the drum machine pounded, and Regine—manic, transcendent Regine—not only sung every note like her last, but her twirling, sparkling dancing at the song’s climax, which I’d always felt a bit silly, was suddenly spectacular.
She left us as we all felt at the end of that show: celebratory, revelatory, together.
The setlist, and photos of Arcade Fire and opener Owen Pallett—the first time I’ve seen him play with drums, and it was pretty great— after the fold…