Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Arcade Fire

Reflektions on a life in art

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Reflektor by Arcade Fire

Earlier this week, like just about everyone else I know, I picked up a copy of Reflektor, the fourth album by Arcade Fire. This isn’t a review, necessarily: I’ve listened to the album in bits and pieces, but I’ve only had the chance to play it straight through once, for some of the same reasons that have made it hard for me to watch an entire movie at home. And this is a band that has taught me to question my initial impressions. When The Suburbs was first released, it struck me as weaker than their previous two albums; now, it feels like their strongest work, and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is my favorite song of the decade. Reflektor certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy evaluation: it’s a double album, with the majority of its tracks pushing the six-minute mark, and the early reviews have resorted to all the usual adjectives—it’s sprawling, messy, flawed, indulgent, as if that weren’t true of all albums this length. Some are already calling it Arcade Fire’s Kid A, but its real counterpart, if you want to stick to Radiohead, is Hail to the Thief: it isn’t trying to reinvent pop music as we know it, but with its big, ragged tracks organized around the seed crystal of a memorable hook, it’s systematically pushing the boundaries of what we recognize as familiar.

In short, I like it a lot, and it confirms Arcade Fire as one of the two contemporary bands whose work I’ll always rush out to buy on the first day. The other is The Magnetic Fields, or, more precisely, the music from the mind of Stephin Merritt, whose Future Bible Heroes side project released a wonderful album earlier this year. At first glance, Merritt and Arcade Fire don’t have much in common, but to my ears, they’ve come to define two extremes of the kind of music I—and a lot of other listeners—care about so deeply. Merritt writes tight, spare novelty songs, the best of which often sound as if they were composed and recorded on a Casio keyboard; Arcade Fire throws everything into the mix, with lush, passionate orchestrations designed, at least in the early days, to have an entire auditorium singing along at the top of its lungs. (One of my favorite concert memories is seeing them play here in Chicago, with the crowd repeatedly trying and failing to join in at the right moment for the initial “Hey!” in “No Cars Go.”) Merritt is primarily a brilliant lyricist who writes catchy tunes as a sort of metacommentary on how cheap a resource a melody can be; Arcade Fire’s lyrics, while heartfelt, are usually the weakest link in their songs, which exist mainly to generate overpowering sonic emotions. And so on.

Stephin Merritt

But I wouldn’t want to give either of them up. It’s fascinating to think of how they might approach similar material: Reflektor draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a nod to Marcel Camus’s movie Black Orpheus, and while I can easily imagine Merritt writing a song on the subject, it would probably end up being a rhyming dictionary exercise on the word “Eurydice.” (“Idiosyncrasy,” “conspiracy,” “bureaucracy”—it practically writes itself.) If you like, you could even see them as dueling expressions of the existential and ironic philosophies of life. To Arcade Fire, the moral choices each one of us makes are crucially important, and we need to behave as if we were setting an example for the entire world. Win Butler, their lead singer and lyricist, is intensely concerned with the inner lives of children, with nature, with all we destroy in the name of progress. Nothing could be further from Merritt. When his songs aren’t talking about other songs, they’re focused on the sly dissection of a moment, on how our deepest feelings are shaped by the formulas we’ve heard on the radio, and, with rare exceptions, even his most emotional tracks are delivered with a wink: we’re constantly asked to consider how he does what he’s doing. It’s pop music written for other writers, which isn’t to say it can’t be moving. When Merritt allows real feeling to slip through, it means a great deal, and the result cuts even deeper than an Arcade Fire song that urges us with all its heart to feel the plight of the powerless.

Yet in their very different ways, the Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire are linked by a sense of the overwhelming importance of music to how we think about ourselves. For Arcade Fire, this drama is played out within the context of individual songs, each one of which insists it could change your life; for Merritt, it’s a lifetime’s work, with every two-minute throwaway serving as another brick in an edifice that the artist is patiently building. Merritt never tries to pack everything he knows into one track: instead, he stands back and invites us to consider what it really means to devote one’s life to something as absurd as pop music. Of the two, I suspect that his work might end up being the most lasting, at least for me, if only because I relate more to his vision of an artist who is one step away from being an ingenious hack. It’s a recipe for a life in art, or for keeping one’s sanity in the face of the hollowness of the entire artistic enterprise, while Arcade Fire is a dream of how urgency, passion, and technical virtuosity can transform us into something more, if only for the space of a song. Both attitudes are necessary, and the ideal would be a band or artist who embodies both ends of the spectrum, alternatively or all at once—arch detachment balanced by passionate emotion, distance tempered by vulnerability, irony framed by compassion. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can even dance to it. And I have a feeling it would look a lot like the Pet Shop Boys.

Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

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Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.

His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.

And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)

Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.

With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

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