Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands and it would be impossible for me to put aside my geekiness in this article. Yet, as I picked up their new album “Reflketor” last Fall, I felt a vague sense of dread, even though I enjoyed it. Here is my attempt to figure out why this latest record from the Canadian collective scared me so much:
When I was 14 my voice cracked in front of the whole school. It’s the definitive symbol of the pain of puberty, and my cool-kid tie and indoor sunglasses did little to mitigate the humiliation. The next day I bought Neon Bible by Arcade Fire. It’s funny how hindsight cuts out all the superfluous crap. These two events, the trauma of showing my youth in public and a simple album purchase, are so intimately connected in my mind.
It makes sense on some level. Arcade Fire is one of the defining bands of my young adult life and what they have so magnificently achieved over the past decade, besides a bevy of exquisitely crafted albums, is the ability to speak for children without pandering, without misty eyed navel-gazing, and without restraint. Their ability to expose the simultaneous liminality, beauty, and discord in youth is unparalleled. This is also what most scares me about Arcade Fire’s new direction since releasing 2013’s wildly popular Reflektor.
The rallying cry of Arcade Fire’s sophomore album, Neon Bible, was the line: “us kids know.” In this seemingly innocuous and childishly self-assured proclamation, Win Butler and crew simultaneously captured the transcendent knowledge and fragility of youth. It was a biting insight into the ability of children to see both clearly and remotely at once. That is to say that kids experience domestic pain (whether financial, marital, personal, etc.) in both an intensely intimate and naïve manner. They understand the world in an emotionally pure, yet fundamentally immature, manner.
Keeping this duality in mind, the youth in Arcade Fire’s songs are not idealized; they viciously hurt and isolate one another. Yet, in the end these young characters that Butler invents are able to perceive the atomization and fragmentation of American culture in a way that Butler’s adult characters can never articulate. While the adults vaguely intuit the ills of society by saying, “I’m living in an age that calls darkness light,” and calling attention to the exploitation of Catholic charity organizations, it is the children that understand most clearly the root of the problem even if they can’t understand the complexities of the situation. In “Sprawl I (Flatland)” Butler speaks as a child who realizes that the expansion of suburban American has created a class of rootless children with no real sense of home. However, faced with a desolate Texas suburb, this child is only able to say: “It’s the first time I felt like something was mine.”
This kind of simple yet profound insight into the worldview of children and young adults has fallen away on Arcade Fire’s most recent record Reflektor. Indeed the only time that childhood is really addressed is when Butler confronts “little boys looking at porno” (bringing a previously absent sexuality to Arcade Fire’s lyrics). While Butler’s musings are still a provocative mix of cleverness and grandiosity, he has abandoned the childish voice which so often tempered the eschatological dreariness of the adults’ concerns.
You can also see this “absence of innocence” in Régine Chassagne’s diminished vocal presence. Her playful yet youthfully self-assured voice provided a glorious foil to Butler’s heavy, Bowie-esque vocals. The dynamic between the two of them, perhaps most brilliantly used in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” managed to indefinitely capture that liminal moment between childhood and maturity. Their music was stuck in a place of transition, never fixed, but open to the truths of both sides. Now with Reflektor it seems they have unfortunately lost this salient position.
Certainly Reflektor has many good songs for all its faults. The title track is a striking commentary on commercialism in “The Reflective Age,” yet the voices of the kids (such a staple of Arcade Fire’s work) are nowhere to be found. Perhaps as new parents, Win and Régine don’t feel they can speak for children anymore. But this is exactly the moment I want to hear from indie rock’s most wide-eyed songwriters. An album from new parents about experiencing parenthood while still feeling like a child would be unprecedented in the scope of rock music.
Faced with the horror of voice cracks and bad haircuts, my 8th grade self desperately needed Arcade Fire to reassure me that youth has its uses; its own privileges. With Neon Bible, Arcade Fire helped me to understand that youth is full of these secret knowledges. After all, it would be tragically ironic if Butler’s most ingenious lyrics about parenthood were penned before he was even a father. But I think we have more to hear about innocence, childhood, and wonder from the man who wrote:
“…I want a daughter while I’m still young/I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done/But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask/Then send me a son”.
You have your son now Mr. Butler. How do you feel?