Let me begin with a quote from Quinn's review on Streethawk:
Make no mistake, people will listen to this record and some of them will laud it as a massive achievement – "a sophomore triumph that trumps the impossibly lofty heights of their debut LP” – while others will piss all over it, perhaps noting (in case you forgot) that they were witness to "the band's third show ever, opening for the Unicorns (who were then only three strong and playing with a vintage 1980's ghetto blaster) in a loft in Montreal's Mile End district, and they haven't done anything worthwhile since."
An apt assessment! But I'm here to dispute Quinn's follow-up sentence that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle," because that platitude is limp liberalism, and limp liberals are (okay, I'm going out on a limb here) the reason why crap like the Arcade Fire gets lauded as authentic, ambitious, political, and populist when it is in fact shallow, regressive, boring, and false. In other words, I'm here to piss on this album, and I've got some moaning to do, too. These are the days of second-rate simulations, and we're so used to having decayed, third-generation derivatives flashed at us from big screens that even the original versions (i.e. David Byrne) come out in public now, claiming to have seen their own reflection in the black mirror-faces of their bastard children.
My opinion on this record was pretty much decided before it came out, so have to admit that I haven't given it a fair shake. Neither do I intend to. It's got all the praise it needs already and vastly more than it deserves. So, without pretending to any fair, in-depth, or objective analysis, I simply want to come out against the concensus and let my nay be heard. I did not like the Arcade Fire when I first heard them, though I did on several occasions stand up for them against a few folks bent on dismissing indie-rock wholesale. When an acquaintance professed a taste for them, early on, though, I was surprised. "Kinda schmaltzy, aren't they?" I said. I was not impressed by their live show (first time headlining in Vancouver and they sold out the Commodore! first headlining tour, a thousand hands aloft!) and I was shocked by the crowd's undeniably powerful response (I rarely see people so captivated at shows of long-stablished bands, let along brand-new ones). So now they've got a new album, it's a double helping of the same kitschy melodrama I didn't like the first time, and it's frosted with a sticky black glaze of doomy goth religiosity. Whether their fans admit it or not, The Arcade Fire is now basically Evanescence for people who read McSweeney's.
Which brings me to their appropriation of Springsteen's desperate-man blues (shot, admittedly, through a Guy Maddin lens). Like The Killers before them (who were less successful at actually sounding something like The Boss), they seem to be gunning hard for artistic maturity and respectability by grasping at the most cliched signifiers of earnest struggle and populist identification. The thing is, they're just empty signs, flourescent labels screaming "THIS IS AUTHENTIC". Structurally, the songs remain dishearteningly uninteresting - as with the debut, basic melodies are rendered grandiose by having them pounded out on eight instruments at a time. That this manages to sustain comparisons with such great innovators in rhythmic density and exploratory production techniques like the Talking Heads (with David Byrne's approval!) should lead every right-thinking music fan to question their press. Has anyone listened to Remain In Light lately? And what of the Arcade Fire's purported sincerity? Their heart-on-sleeve emotionalism? Should we be touched, moved? When every song recruits a gargantan church organ to swell Win Butler's high school poetry to apocalyptic proportions (“mirror, mirror / on the wall / show me where the / bombs will fall”)? I say, stop touching me. This music is manipulative, and in the age of Terror, the last thing we need is more theater, more Rapture, more reduction of discourse to cliche and hyperbole. If they appeal to Masses, they do it the same way Bush does: by reducing content to a parody and appealing to their audience's most primary fears and insecurities. This is music-as-spectacle when we need the opposite. That it parades as engaged and intelligent (much like the teacher's pets in The Decemberists, who confuse knowing a lot of quaint antique words with being smart, and congratulate themselves by dressing in period costume and acting out their cultural-superiority fantasies in glorious self-absorption) makes it all the worse. Of course, this is faintly ludicrous coming from an obviously inveterate snob like me.
Yes, I'm a snob. Yes, it's far cooler for me to hate this than like it. So I'm not challenging myself, either. And my whole rhetoric of taste is based on a dismissal of the popular mainsteam, so it's a little rich for me to be taking the Arcade Fire to task for aestheticizing politics. I just feel like people deserve better.