It's hard for me to process anything Arcade Fire do in a strictly rational way, such is the giddy, moon-eyed ague of adoration that comes over me whenever they return with new thrills. They've put on some of the best gigs I've ever seen, and for me, put out some of the most exciting and perfect music of the past decade. But, it is kinda my job, so here goes...
5. Arcade Fire EP
A strange thing to listen to now, this 2003 collection has to come in last place as a bit of intriguing juvenilia. Though you can hear it now as the work of a unique act finding their feet, it’s also recognisably in the Americana-tinged, beardy, ‘another bloody Canadian band’ bracket of 2005. Win even displays a Neil Youngish warble on ‘Vampires/Forest Fire’, although he’s also already pleading “Let’s live in the suburbs…”. For Regineophiles, her voice has never sounded as clear, strong and foregrounded on the spook-psychy ‘I’m Sleeping In A Submarine’ and ‘The Woodlands National Anthem’. Thouhg charming, the EP never sounds like the band are quite hitting their stride, often too cluttered or too hurried, never hitting the arresting poise of ‘Funeral’. The difference is clear to see on this early version of ‘No Cars Go’; if anyone tells you they prefer this version to the ‘Neon Bible’ one, you may dismiss them as an I-saw-them-first pretentious muppet (although the extreme, Elmo-and-Betty-Lou-from-Sesame Street cuteness of Regine and Win’s vocal interplay on it is amusingly twee).
4. Neon Bible
Last of the albums proper, yes, but nowhere near as much the black sheep of the family as most would make out. Listen to it now, and you can’t really remember why people ever saw it as a misstep; perhaps, as with Arctic Monkey’s 'Humbug', it’s just a story people repeat in order to make an easier narrative out of their discography. But still; to find two car-related songs of such immensity as ‘No Cars Go’ and ‘Keep The Car Running’ (a Springsteen rip-off so convincing even the Boss bought it, performing it live with the band) on one album is remarkable. The murky, melodramatic magic of Black Mirror, the slightly heavy-handed grandeur of ‘Intervention’ with its churchy organ, the deliciously sexy blues hymn of ‘My Body Is A Cage’ ... Give it another listen now, and you’ll see why I’m reluctant to put it behind the other albums, even though it’s where it must go.
Many would rate this album higher, and I don’t blame them. It’s rare to hear a debut not only so sure of its own sound but so consistently good and with such variation in tone. Most would be lucky to have one full-blooded, full-flight pearls such as ‘Wake Up’, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ or any of the ‘Neighbourhood…’ songs, let alone be so heavy with them as ‘Funeral’ is. It deftly delineated themes that still haunt the band to this day: the lost or vanishing innocence of “us kids”, the Cormac McCarthy-esque post-apocalyptic terror lurking beneath suburban cosiness, and of course, on Regine’s shimmeringly gorgeous moment in the spotlight, ‘Haiti', the Carribbean island that furnishes inspiration on their latest work. An album to haunt, enchant and be clutched to the heart forever.
2. The Suburbs
Fewer arguments here, I imagine; the grand, elegiac sprawl of their third took one of Win Butler’s pet topics – yep, lost innocence in a disorientating dystopian conflict – and made it into a full-blown concept on the likes of ‘Suburban War’ and ‘The Sprawl’. The glossy, smooth surfaces of ‘Rococo’, with its baroque twists, and ‘Modern Man’, with is melancholic Tom Pettyisms, stunned with their sophistication, while the likes of ‘Ready To Start’ or ‘Month Of May’ flashed their raw, wild heart. An album that will still be revealing new facets in the likes of the enigmatic ‘Deep Blue’ as it charms with the immediate loveability of the discopop ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ in decades to come.
Even once all the dust of its drawn-out build up has settled, Arcade Fire’s fourth album will be by no means a universal choice as their best work. It’s not as smooth a listen as ‘The Suburbs’, it’s awkward and eclectic and experimentally rough-edged, but for me, ‘Reflektor’’s peaks hit higher than the previous albums’. Whatever you think of bold stylistic leaps like the Clash-like, dub-heavy ‘Flasbulb Eyes’ and the taut funk of ‘Reflektor’ (and for me, the blending of the sonic palettes of two of my favourite things, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, couldn’t be more masterfully done) heartbreaking, glimmering tracks like ‘It’s Never Over (Oh, Eurydice)’, ‘Porno’ and ‘Afterlife’ had me playing them over and over, drop-jawed, while the thrashy, glammy ‘Joan Of Arc’ and the Smiths-like ‘You Already Know’ show that grandiose as they get, they’ve not lost their sense of fun. It seems they just keep getting better and better; let’s hope that pattern continues.