The Arcade Fire scored their biggest victory and suffered their greatest indignity on the same night.
On February 13th, the Montreal indie group's third album, The Suburbs, won the Grammy for Album of the Year, upsetting Eminem, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Lady Antebellum. The conservative National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences typically considers dance-pop too frivolous and hip-hop too menacing for its highest honor, so in retrospect an Arcade Fire win seems predictable, if not inevitable.
To their credit, however, the band ran through "Month of May" and "Ready To Start" (hijacking the stage for the unplanned second song) as if they had something to prove, and they reacted to the big news with a seemingly unfeigned excitement that's at distinct odds with the perpetually nonplussed attitude associated with the indie community from which the band arose.
Even before the credits had run, the backlash began in a flurry of tweets, blog posts, and Facebook status updates. Shortly, a tumblr site called whoisarcadefire sprang up to document the collective bafflement. That some viewers had no familiarity with the band struck many other viewers as surprising, especially since The Suburbs debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart and the Arcade Fire sold out a triumphal show at Madison Square Garden.
That virulent reaction, which died down within a few days, perhaps says more about the fragmentation of contemporary pop audiences than it does about popular tastes. No doubt many Arcade Fire fans were equally dumbfounded to see nominally country act Lady Antebellum make so many trips to the podium that same night. The irony is that the Arcade Fire isn't a cloistered indie-rock band that shuns such awards and spectacles. Just the opposite: More than any other band on an independent label in the 2000s, they have proved not only the most popular but arguably the most willing to embrace popularity.
Such ambitions inflect their music in intriguing ways, giving them license to grasp for immensity as well as intensity. Frontman Win Butler doesn't just write lyrics, he skywrites them, addressing big topics in direct language. Sometimes too direct: "Ready To Start" begins with the questionable lines, "If the businessmen drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would." Only the barely contained tension in the music rescues the song after such a shaky beginning.
Parsing Butler's lyrics line by line, however, would miss the point: The Arcade Fire work on a macro level. Each song serves its album, which is built around a lofty concept: death and grief on their 2004 debut Funeral, faith and doubt on 2007's Neon Bible, and memory and disconnection on The Suburbs.
In fact, the version of the suburbs evoked on the band's latest album is more a literary concept than an actual setting, a conflicted memory in a post-suburban America, where exurbs invade the countryside and the housing bubble has largely halted sprawl. These songs present the suburbs not as ersatz communities but as a repository for coming-of-age memories: "In my dreams we're still screaming and running through the yard," Butler sings on the title track. "Sometimes I can't believe it, I'm moving past the feeling."
He never discloses what "the feeling" is, seemingly because it's too large to name, too devastating to confront. The past haunts this album, which is no mean feat for a band so young, and detractors have mistaken the Arcade Fire's melancholy for self-seriousness. Yet, it is that unexpected gravity that makes their personal reminiscences resonate beyond themselves, that makes their music sound so immediate. Ultimately, the Arcade Fire know very well who they are, even if so many others don't.