On their lat­est al­bum, Ar­cade Fire lament our cur­rent dig­i­tal dystopia. But they may also be its great­est ben­e­fi­cia­ries

Sharp - - ON THE RECORD - By Tim Kennedy

TAKEN OUT OF CON­TEXT, the lyrics to “Ev­ery­thing Now”— the first sin­gle in three years from Mon­treal’s hugely ac­claimed in­die rock over­lords Ar­cade Fire — sound bleak. “Ev­ery time you smile it’s a fake,” goes one line. “Ev­ery room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live with­out,” reads an­other.

Yet, the song it­self — in a smart, en­joy­ably ab­surd twist — is closer to an ABBA song than a dirge. Strings swell. Pianos tin­kle. Through­out, front­man Win But­ler preaches earnestly about the dan­gers of sen­sory over­load in the In­ter­net age: “Ev­ery inch of space in your head / Is filled up with the things that you read / I guess you’ve got ev­ery­thing now.” Ar­cade Fire’s up­com­ing shows in sup­port of their new al­bum, also ti­tled Ev­ery­thing Now, are be­ing called the “In­fi­nite Con­tent” tour, in case the band’s tar­get was un­clear.

Most of us will be able to re­late to Ar­cade Fire’s concern. (How many browser tabs do you have open right now?) But there’s also a cer­tain irony to the band’s lament: few acts have ben­e­fit­ted more than Ar­cade Fire from the In­ter­net’s dis­rup­tion of the mu­sic in­dus­try. The “ev­ery­thing now” frag­men­ta­tion that Ar­cade Fire wants to es­cape is a key part of their suc­cess.

That’s not to im­ply that Ar­cade Fire have used the In­ter­net in a cyn­i­cal or op­por­tunis­tic way. Mostly, they’ve had lucky tim­ing. When the band re­leased their mas­ter­ful de­but al­bum, Fu­neral, in Septem­ber 2004, it was a happy co­in­ci­dence that the In­ter­net’s in­die mu­sic

ecosys­tem — which loved the al­bum — was just reach­ing ma­tu­rity. Had Fu­neral re­ceived its rave re­view from Pitch­fork, ar­guably the most im­por­tant In­ter­net tastemaker in in­die mu­sic, a year or two ear­lier, it would have been a nice com­pli­ment. In 2004, it was a game changer. Ac­cord­ing to a 2005 Chicago Tri­bune ar­ti­cle, the Pitch­fork re­view prompted a spike in sales so large it caused the record to (briefly) go out of print.

That en­thu­si­asm soon spread be­yond Ar­cade Fire, spark­ing an in­die rock boom in Canada and es­pe­cially in Mon­treal. Fewer than six months af­ter the re­lease of Fu­neral, the New York Times had al­ready dis­patched a re­porter up north: “At least a dozen Mon­treal acts are re­vers­ing the nor­mal United States-cana­dian cul­tural po­lar­ity, pro­duc­ing records that have Amer­i­can au­di­ences and record com­pa­nies pay­ing rapt at­ten­tion.” The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ar­cade Fire and the artists cited by the Times — in­clud­ing Sam Roberts, the Uni­corns, Wolf Pa­rade, and Chromeo — is of course more com­pli­cated than “leader : fol­lower” (some men­tioned acts, like God­speed You! Black Em­peror, long pre­date Ar­cade Fire). But hav­ing a record as good as Fu­neral emerge from your scene never hurts.

Mean­while, the mu­sic in­dus­try as a whole wasn’t in great shape in 2004, as CD sales be­gan plum­met­ing from their late-’90s peak. Things had got­ten much worse by 2011, when Ar­cade Fire be­came the first in­die group to win the Grammy Award for Al­bum of the Year for their third al­bum, The Sub­urbs, beat­ing out much-higher-sell­ing re­leases from Eminem and Katy Perry, among oth­ers.

The Gram­mys are a use­less bench­mark for qual­ity, but they do tell you some­thing about what the record­ing in­dus­try it­self con­sid­ers rel­e­vant. The fact that Ar­cade Fire’s mod­est sales and sus­tained crit­i­cal ac­claim were con­sid­ered more note­wor­thy than the com­mer­cial might of their fel­low nom­i­nees seems di­rectly re­lated to the way the In­ter­net has rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way we lis­ten to mu­sic. When the idea of a sin­gle “main­stream” mar­ket has be­come ob­so­lete — when ev­ery au­di­ence is a niche au­di­ence — maybe the idea of re­ward­ing the lit­tle guy (rel­a­tively speak­ing) seems less risky.

This is what makes the dig­i­tal skep­ti­cism of “Ev­ery­thing Now” so amus­ing: Ar­cade Fire has had the ex­ceed­ingly good for­tune to ben­e­fit both from the In­ter­net’s el­e­va­tion of in­die sub­cul­ture and from the In­ter­net’s gut­ting of the old mu­sic in­dus­try model. The In­ter­net might be the best thing that ever hap­pened to them. “Ev­ery song that I’ve ever heard / Is play­ing at the same time, it’s ab­surd,” goes one of “Ev­ery­thing Now’s” bet­ter lines. I get the feel­ing, but if the In­ter­net has in­deed per­ma­nently ru­ined my at­ten­tion span, at least so many of Ar­cade Fire’s songs are so good that it still feels like a fair trade.

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