It didn’t happen. Despite the heavy lobbying and speculation from every single indie-rock blogger on the planet, the Arcade Fire do not have the #1 album in the country. They came pretty close; Neon Bible, their hyped-to-death sophomore album, sold 92,000 copies in its first week, and that’s just 7000 short of the Biggie greatest hits album, good enough for #2. That’s pretty impressive for a fired-up gaggle of non-photogenic Canadian overemoters whose entire fanbase downloaded their album weeks ago anyway, but it’s still not the sort of number that screams pop sensation. And the impressiveness level dips even further when you consider that it lost to a greatest-hits album from an artist who only released two albums in his life and whose two albums have already sold millions upon millions of copies. Looking at the tracklist to this Biggie album, it’s about the worst Biggie greatest-hits album I could possibly imagine (no “Party & Bullshit”?), and I can’t imagine anyone was all that amped to run out and buy it. If no Biggie album had come out last week, the Arcade Fire would have the highest-selling album in the country, but it’d be one of the most commercially underwhelming chart-toppers since Soundscan was invented. Something similar happened a couple of months ago when the Shins’ new album came in just behind the new Pretty Ricky album on the charts, landing at #2 just like Neon Bible. (I still haven’t heard the Pretty Ricky album, but I’ve seen them live, and their dizzying array of synchronized humping maneuvers was a lot more entertaining than any of the inert blank-faced bopping I’ve ever seen the Shins do. Pretty Ricky works harder, and they probably deserved to win.) There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the major record labels are falling apart and how indie labels are suddenly in the position to compete because consumers are sick of the increasingly boring commercial-radio oligarchy. All of those points might be more or less true, but none of them have brought the biggest bands in indieland to the point where they can defeat some of the most proudly frivolous products that the big labels are still churning out.
What interests me more about the Shins/Arcade Fire comparison, though, is that the Shins ended up selling 118,000 albums in their first week compared to the Arcade Fire’s 92,000, an outcome I really wouldn’t have expected. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that the general consensus around the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away was that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as their past couple of albums, and their Natalie Portman-fueled backlash was reaching some pretty epic levels, whereas the Arcade Fire had the entire blogger/critic/SNL programmer/David Bowie axis pulling for them. The Shins might be better-looking and more approachable, and one of them dated that one ridiculously hot America’s Next Top Model chick, and they’re on a bigger indie, and they made a pretty good video for “Phantom Limb,” but this still strikes me as a pretty interesting surprise victory. And I think the difference boils down to the different aims of the two albums. Wincing the Night Away is a modest little collection of vaguely retro, fairly professional rock, something not all that far-removed Starbucks/Grey’s Anatomy zeitgeist that somehow turned James Blunt into a viable star. Like the Fray and Snow Patrol, the Shins owe a lot of their success to a lucky soundtrack placement. Their music is low-risk, no-commitment fluff, not necessarily a bad thing all things considered. I felt like I understood Wincing the Night Away the first time I heard it.
I didn’t feel like I understood Neon Bible the first time I heard it. In fact, I didn’t feel like I really got it until last night. I was listening to it while, driving from Maryland to Virginia, and the driving, overblown hugeness of “Intervention” finally and suddenly became crushingly powerful. The exact same thing happened with Funeral, the Arcade Fire’s last album. I read all the fawning reviews, bought the album, listened to it a couple of times, decided it was a charged-up rip from circa-Fevers and Mirrors Bright Eyes, and stopped paying attention. I didn’t get around to liking it until months later, when I was driving around late at night with my girlfriend and I remembered that Fevers and Mirrors-era Bright Eyes was actually really fucking great. Every review I’ve seen of Neon Bible has felt obligated to mention how huge and overwhelming the album’s sound is, how that hugeness pretty much defines the album’s appeal. That hugeness, though, might prevent the Arcade Fire from making the sort of cultural impact a lot of people hope they’ll have. As a form, the album is well along its way to dying, and an album that requires a sort of obsessive immersion for its appeal to become apparent might not turn out to be the world-beating monolith that it might’ve been in another time. My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade demands similar levels of obsessiveness, and that album hasn’t blown MCR up in the ways that their label probably hoped it would. Nine Inch Nails’ upcoming apocalyptic concept-album will certainly have its enthusiastic fans, but I have to wonder whether it’ll face a similar fate in the marketplace. All these bands are doing fine, but none of them is going to conquer the world. The world wants Coldplay, nothing more. If indie-rock ever manages to produce its own Coldplay, we might have a next-Nirvana situation on our hands. I have no idea whether that’ll be a good thing.