The Unforgettable Fire

Joyously overwrought arena rock often sounds even better in church

To indulge in a bit of corny jargon, the Arcade Fire have a truly fantastic elevator pitch, assuming you ignore the fact that the pitch is delivered by more people than can comfortably fit in most elevators. The first 30 seconds of the band's Late Show With David Letterman infiltration are truly amazing. Dave is almost swallowed whole by a maelstrom of shrieking violins, pounding keyboards, and shredding guitars the instant he utters the words "Arcade Fire," an atonal racket issued by at least 10— hell, possibly as many as 300—unruly Canadians, including one spastic chump lumbering around, whacking a solitary drum. There's an unreal, almost childlike, but undeniably violent quality to it, like a gang war just broke out in FAO Schwarz. The sped-up version of arena-leveling anthem "Rebellion (Lies)" that follows is rousing enough, but nothing beats the shock and awe of those first 30 seconds, the sheer overwhelming rush of that many people going that apeshit. I wish the camera had lingered on Letterman's face a few seconds longer.

The power trio has given way to the power octet (at least)—last time I saw Broken Social Scene they had five guitarists onstage, all bashing the same chord simultaneously, a new standard in quantity control emulated by everyone from the Polyphonic Spree to Bright Eyes. Sufjan Stevens particularly wants some of this, but his Tinkertoy orchestras are far too mannered, too polite, too OCD almost, a painstakingly lined-up table setting with the knives all pointing the same way. The Arcade Fire's finest moments unfold like bar brawls. The massive wave of adulation that greeted their 2004 debut, Funeral, may have originated from more delicate indie-rock-loving environs, but make no mistake: This is a shameless, overwrought, hilariously grandiose arena-rock band, its every gesture broad and bombastic and Bono-baiting. Which is what makes them truly fantastic—listen to a tune like "Crown of Love" absentmindedly (while paying bills or something) and it sounds ridiculous, frontman Win Butler yelping wildly as a lumbering power ballad suddenly bursts into a ludicrous double-time disco gallop. But slap on headphones and concentrate on it, fully immerse yourself in the melodrama, and it's an expertly crafted slow-burn crescendo that builds inevitably and joyously to total apocalypse. Ludicrous, yes, but very, very necessary.

The finest moments on the band's imminent follow-up, Neon Bible, are equally overwhelming, particularly the church organs that nearly bury "Intervention," the robotic piano jabs that goose "The Well and the Lighthouse" into a sprint, and Butler's even more labored vocals throughout, his imagery a Springsteenian jumble of black mirrors, black oceans, black light, black heat. The disco's gone, but the apocalypse remains: Nothing to do but speculate as to "Whennnnn! It'ssssssss!!!! Commmeee!!!!! Innnnnnnnnnnnn'!!!!!!!!!!!" Again, without total immersion it's a lo-fi Phantom of the Opera rip with more pathos and less subtlety, but in the right context such pathos is exhilarating—almost biblical. Try listening to it in church, say. The band's instantly sold-out five-night run at Judson Memorial Church started Tuesday, ended Saturday, and (we're assuming here, but what the hell) peaked Thursday, the stage a jumble of bodies and amps and mic stands adorned with bullhorns. Internet chatter regarding the first two shows had been dominated by people bitching about the listless, arms-folded crowds, but tonight there were E Street Band levels of fist-pumping—new songs like "Keep the Car Running" and "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" feel a bit timid and aimless the first few times you spin the record, but 10 people onstage screaming while several hundred people in the audience scream back quickly compel you to reassess. Suddenly the accordion riff of "No Cars Go" induces chills instead of smirks; when all 10 Arcade members start howling backup vocals in unison, their mouths form perfect O's—the effect would look ridiculous in a still photograph but generates a born-again ferocity live.

The band's best songs are technically songs (melodies, chord changes, y'know, structure) but at their core are just fluid, bottomless reservoirs of the pure noise that first terrified David Letterman. The Judson set was Bible heavy—the comparatively sedate "Windowsill" gained the most gravitas from the recorded-to-live transition, mutating from passive protest ("Don't wanna live in America no more") to aggressive anthem—but peaked when it ran the Funeraltracks "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)" and "Rebellion (Lies)" straight into each other, both occasionally dissolving into electrified orchestral fistfights. The crowd at Justin Timberlake's recent Madison Square Garden show—younger, hormonal, and at least 10 times as large—was nowhere near as vocally euphoric. Nor, it goes without saying, was Justin himself. The Arcade Fire only truly work when they abandon any semblance of sanity and humility, when they abandon all attempts at restraint and unleash the adrenaline-addled Rockythemes they seem capable of summoning at will. For the encore the full band walked offstage, burrowed into the center of the crowd, formed a circle, and did an acoustic campfire version of "Wake Up," perhaps their most Rocky-esque moment (great elevator pitch on that one, too); usually such gestures are lovely and populist but kinda toothless, given that you can't hear shit. But Win belted the tune at full blast through one of those bullhorn microphones, and everyone backed him in the choruses, one man's" Whoa!" borne to the ceiling by hundreds of others. Apocalypse now.

 
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