Or "How come I don't like Arcade Fire (after Funeral)?" A navel-gazing investigation
The mid naughties: when I went to uni, posed around like an indie snob pretending to like Lars Von Trier, and developed an insatiable appetite for pirating music.
Like a starving person crawling from the desert into an all-you-can-eat buffet, I was Kazaa-ing a near-indigestible cocktail of Radiohead Liars Mogwai The Cooper Temple Clause Sigur Ros LCD Soundsystem My Morning Jacket The Faint Bright Eyes Tori Amos Nine Inch Nails Bjork Milk Hotel Elliott Smith The Dandy Warhols Interpol Bloc Party The Secret Machines Aereogramme ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead Mclusky Oceansize Death From Above 1979 The Strokes plus trendily-revived artists like Joy Division, the Pixies...
It was so difficult to keep up, even I didn't know what music I liked. But I knew I loved Arcade Fire's Funeral. Its weirdly antique artwork, unfurnished room reverb, and perpetually anguished vocals conjured this strange and refreshing un-rock n roll-ness. Its total absorption in its own world were a bit like Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which Funeral managed to hold a candle to, in that it was truly all killer, no filler.
Arcade Fire's next record, Neon Bible, was not great. Soaking in the post-punk revivalism of the era with synthesiser and dry, boxy drum sounds, its neon seemed colourless where Funeral had seemed gloriously sepia. Everyone else loved it. I didn’t get it. The next album, The Suburbs, seemed a partial return to form, but felt too hit and miss. Reflektor, the last album of theirs I've heard, landed in between the false promise of The Suburbs and the outright disappointment of Neon Bible. The critics raved (they seemed incapable of not raving), but to me, "Arcade Fire's new album" became a synonym for "Emperor's new clothes".
Was Funeral a fluke? Or did they start believing their own hype? I don't know, but it all seems like missteps ever since. How can artists so talented/smart/true to themselves make "nothing music"? This is the Arcade Fire Paradox, or my theory of Borinteresting. Help me coin it!
It’s not the voice. It's an unassailably classic indie male vocal with the faltering, fragile top end, and even in his most comfortable range he sounds moderately perturbed. And the band’s musicianship is excellent. From drummer to violinist, I can't fault a thing. The production flatters each sound and draws no attention to the production itself, which is ideal. The lyrics incisively observe modern life, insightfully and relatably, which is not easy to accomplish.
It all goes awry with the melodies, I reckon. On Funeral, the tunes glowed with that classic “Now that’s what I call a melody” magic. Even Burt Bacharach would have envied some of that record. Neon Bible? The Suburbs? Reflektor? Maybe sometimes, but overall, no.
This is the pattern in the post-Funeral albums - the melodies are inherently dull, and tucked into a well-arranged bed of interesting musical and rhythmic distractions. Collectively, these distractions can never add up to be an acceptable substitute for a strong melody. In vocal music - folk, hip hop, Gregorian chant - the vocal is king. Arcade Fire write melodies, but after Funeral their melodies consistently do the least lifting they can get away with.
It's not just Arcade Fire being borinteresting - it's a plague affecting a lot of 21st century indie music. The difference with Arcade Fire is they have shown they are capable of better. Modern indie melodies sometimes reach the heights of the 'classics' from that boomer generation, back when productions could only do so much for a song - Alvvays' "Archie, Marry Me" hits the melodic bullseye without leaning on gimmicks. But most often indie melodies are borinteresting: there, yet not there. They write music that wants a strong melody, but hasn't got one. (Aside: Maybe it's telling that Phil Spector, the 60s' biggest turd-polisher, is an inspiration to many modern indie artists. His records sound like he stuffed pot pourri up his arse and farted into an echo chamber, thus fooling millions into thinking his banal songs had depth.)
Melody in general was a stronger element of popular music in the 60s-70s with the Paul McCartney types. After that the zeitgeist seemed to give up on reinventing Paul McCartney's melodic wheel and finding other approaches to songwriting. Pop became new wave (hi tech and image heavy). Rock got harder and riff based - less chords, less melodic possibility. Motown soul became heavy, minimal funk. Affordable technology removed textural limitations - synths, samplers, digital effects, guitar pedals. And post-modern wank was a convenient escape from writing a good tune - you could just write a crap one and call it irony/meta/social comment, and the hipsterati would believe you.
Fast forward to the early naughties indie boom. I'm at the Corner Hotel where my friend is opening for an overhyped American band called Tapes N Tapes. As their name suggests, it was self-conscious indiefied nothingness, a checklist of cheap indicators of indieness, evoking hipster nostalgia for cassette tapes, stylised with pop-arty self-duplication with the uselessly repeated word in their name. Like indie 'pod people', they soullessly enacted what an indie band is expected to sound like. Having seen the show and heard my housemate's CD of them, I never got a sense of who they even were. All I remember is 1) they were bereft of worthwhile melodic content, 2) their songs were over-arranged: the nothing melody was decorated with instrumental dicking around.
Arcade Fire’s post-Funeral arrangements are too complicated, in both the ways Tapes N Tapes were: not enough melodic creativity, too much everything else. "Modern Man" from The Suburbs had a shot at melody, but kept getting spear-tackled mid-line by irritating timing shifts. Perhaps the band intended to convey a push-and-pull conflict within the modern man or whatever. Fine, clever, but it's annoying. Funeral tracks such as "Wake Up" and "The Crown of Love" don't have this problem: they are pure, simple, vividly-conceived, in-focus melodies that didn't need much decoration to work.
Arcade Fire overthink everything. The songs are overworked. The band might rehearse their song, scratch their heads, look at each other, and decide it "needs something". Yes, it does - a stronger idea at its core. Decoration fixes a lousy tune no more than makeup cures illness.
My opinion: if the core of a song isn't strong enough, bin it and write something new. If you need to dick around with overly elaborate arrangements to get away with a song, then the song sucks. Arcade Fire are smart enough to know this. Perhaps they like this academic, piecemeal way of arriving at their songs. Perhaps they really think that something good comes from this process. Quite obviously, they believe in their music; I can hear their conviction. They obviously hear something I don't.
Anyway, the point of all of this is that I think a strong melody would benefit any post-modern rock band. In other genres - hip-hop, screamo, riffy stuff, dance, ambient - there are other priorities and you can get away without one. It's not like Death Grips or Tangerine Dream need more melody. But indie does. It's just recycled rock, and like other low-tech old music (symphonies, country songs), it dies without it. If you don’t have a strong melody, you need a strong ‘something else’ to take the spotlight instead. You can't point the spotlight at the arrangement - that's a backdrop. It might be an interesting backdrop, but it's still too boring to be the star.