Wakeup!—Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative

This week Arcade Fire's pacesetting 2004 gut punch of an album Funeral turns 10 years old and is being canonized all over independent music outlets (Pitchfork and Stereogum) and next month their fourth album Reflektor turns 1 year old, and thus it is now time for PostConsumer Reports to enter a season of heavily focused Arcade Fire articles. 

Today's post: Uncovering, discovering, and illuminating Arcade Fire's grand narrative, the one story they've been trying to tell us for ten years, the one paradigm they've been trying to get 'us kids' to sing along to.

An introductory note: My arguments here might seem overly technical at times. If, as readers, it reaches that point for you, my advice is to always go back to the music and listen for yourselves. The answers are all there...

Here is a quote pulled from a post I put up later this week:
Arcade Fire, from its inception to its most recent work, stand in as an artist's version of an existentialist philosopher, calling us out of inactive non-being-ness into active being-ness, from reflection to revolution, from passive to assertive. This one theme pervades nearly every one of their songs.

That sentence is my attempt at summarizing the poetic and literary themes found in the entirety of Arcade Fire's work. I unpack that statement more in what follows.

But here is what I want to say first:
(1) Thematically speaking, Arcade Fire have made the same album four times in a row.

My contention is the same underlying theme(s) and general narrative arc(s) link every one of their albums together, that they are telling us some grand narrative (whether they know it or not) and are advocating a consistent ideology and working ethic (even if that might be a little vague at times).

I will say more on that in a bit.

But I also first want to say this:
(2) Of the four full length albums Arcade Fire have released, the first and third albums (Funeral and The Suburbs) and the second and fourth albums (Neon Bible and Reflektor) are parallels (or reflectors!!!) of each other. That is, the themes, images, and narratives of albums 1 and 3 (Funeral and The Suburbs) go together as do the themes of albums 2 and 4 (Neon Bible and Reflektor).

I will explain more on that in a bit, but now I want to explain my first boldface statement.

Here is the general underlying theme found throughout every Arcade Fire album:
A group of people, living in an oppressive or broken society, find themselves either rejecting and then leaving that society or stifled by and unable to leave that society. Those who leave enter a great unknown of existential possibility. Those who stay are crushed, becoming a nothing.

This is the theme/narrative you find time and time again in their lyrics. Something is desperately wrong with our world, they contend. Either leave it or get destroyed by the tidal wave. I am not exaggerating in saying I believe we find this theme/narrative somewhere in nearly every song they have ever released. Go ahead and listen for yourselves.

And now, from my second boldface statement, here is why the first and third albums and the second and fourth albums are reflections of each other:
Funeral (1) and The Suburbs (3) recount the stories of civilizations and family structures in collapse and of the subsequent mass exodus of the younger generation ("us kids know") who reject the ways of the older generation by choosing or being forced to leave. In fact, album 3 begins as a reaction to the way album 1 ended, with the narrator in "In the Backseat" (the last track from Funeral) declaring she's spent her whole life in the backseat (hence doing nothing but watch the world go by) but that all the while she has "been learning to drive my whole life, I've been learning...", a line echoed in the eponymous first song from The Suburbs which declares "In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we'd never survive. Grab your mothers keys we're leaving." Here we have an arc connecting Funeral to The Suburbs, with characters going from being passive to being active, from staring out in the backseat now actually learning how to drive. As Funeral ends we have a person who doesn't know how to leave the society that has held her back but as "The Suburbs" begin we meet a person who has taken hold of his own life and knows how to drive himself away from this same society. Their culture has taught these characters to do nothing but observe from the backseat but now they have learned how to drive themselves: "Come on let's go!"

Subsequently, Neon Bible (2) and Reflektor (4) use mirrors, light, and darkness as pervading imagery to convey the same themes of Funeral and The Suburbs, with the former album focusing more on religious (or pseudo-religious) themes and using abstract moral parables and the latter album focusing more on outsiders and lovers attempting to find significance within the broken society within which they live. And again, this is a society they eventually either choose to leave or get destroyed by. Each album begins with songs ("Black Mirror" and "Reflektor") which use mirrors in ominous and oppressive ways. The protagonists of these songs are trapped by the mirrors and will be destroyed by the mirrors if they fail to first destroy the mirrors themselves (a poetic trope that curiously wove its way into the lyrics of "Modern Man" as well). A minor note: another minor theme is reflected on albums 2 and 4 as well, namely, the image of an oppressive noise, as in the songs "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" and "Ocean of Noise" from Neon Bible and "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" from Reflektor.

And just like album 3 begins where album 1 left off, so does album 4 carry onward from where album 2 concluded. "My Body is a Cage", with it's imagery of "living in an age that calls darkness light", an age where the narrator finds himself (or at least he thinks he's) trapped in his own body, "standing on a stage of fear and self doubt", and separated from the one he loves, his mind alone holding the key that will unite him with her, is the precursor to "Reflektor", which would seemingly be a continuation of the same character's narrative which lines such as "Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light/alone in a darkness, a darkness of white/We fell in love, alone on a stage/In the reflective age" and with the whole song essentially consisting of the protagonist longing to unite with his lover but with his plans forever being thwarted. Over and over again he thinks he's "found a way to enter" and "found the connector", but each time he realizes "it was just a reflector." Perhaps the man in "My Body is a Cage" who thought his mind held the key to dancing with the one he loved, has now realized in "Reflektor" that all the disembodied synthetic means (signals, screens, connectors, little silver discs, and plastic) with which he sought to find his love has left him equally separated from her. All the mirrors and lights in the land of the Neon Bible and the land of Reflektors are mirrors of lies and lights of deception.

It should also be noted that Funeral and Neon Bible (albums 1 and 2) are apparently more focused on the people trapped in the corrupted society/mirror, those people either contemplating an exodus or unable to make and exodus and are looking into a great unknown future, while The Suburbs and Reflektor (albums 3 and 4) are more focused on those people who have already left the society/mirror, have entered the great unknown and are looking back as outsiders. It is not apparent these outsiders necessarily have it better than those trapped in the mirror/society; no, life seems to be just as hard and confusing for them but the particular hardship found in being free from the corrupted mirror/society seems to be preferred over the oppressive facades erected in the decaying suburbs and black mirrors of albums 1 and 2. To be sure, this narrative progression from albums 1 and 2 of being trapped to albums 3 and 4 of being free is not watertight, as there are numerous songs about those still trapped in the society/mirror to be found on the later albums The Suburbs and Reflektor, (songs such as "Sprawl II" and "You Already Know").

It is also worth noting the dominant themes of albums 1 and 3 are echoed in albums 2 and 4, and vice verse, with songs off Neon Bible and Reflektor (the mirror/light themed albums) meditating on leaving the corrupted society ("No Cars Go" and "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)") and songs from Funeral and The Suburbs (the society themed albums) using images surrounding mirrors and light and darkness ("Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)", "Rebellion (Lies)", "Modern Man", "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", and a whole lot more!). 

It really is insane how many of the same themes and images are...ummm... reflected throughout every one of their songs, but in ways so unique as to make the same story told a thousand different ways seem fresh each time. It's all spread out so masterfully they never appear to be repeating themselves. It's the same story each time but it's never redundant. It would seem they have managed to create a complex interwoven narrative and thematic tapestry.

In order to see these themes specifically at work, please take a look at these articles I put up a few months ago:
Continual Themes and Subjects in the Work of Arcade Fire
An Index: Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections

Indeed, it would seem Reflector as an album is the culmination of some grand scheme of theirs, conceived years ago when they didn't even know if they would make it as a band, perhaps when lead songwriter Win Butler was getting his degree in religious studies (and reading a lot of Kierkeaggard--but more on that later...). That it was his intention all along to create a series of albums that were all reflectors of each other, some more so than others. Based of off careful study of the lyrics of their four full length albums it seems clear this was consciously done, although I suppose it could possibly be some kind of happy accident where Butler's worldview and artistic sensibilities naturally, though unconsciously, shaped the themes of each album. It would be quite the accident if this were the case, as, looking back on the four works now, it all seems so orchestrated. Who knows where they will go from here, but for now it is apparent we have been given a grand cohesive statement.

Later this week I will dive into more of what Reflektor as a work is about and where its themes come from.

With this set of two introductory articles I will also be kicking off a month long (or so) celebration of Reflektor, with the advent of its one-year anniversary, by offering an in-depth analysis of the album.

I hope you enjoy all this as much as I do. 
Other Arcade Fire Articles:
The Explanation and Inspiration Behind Arcade Fire's Reflektor ___________________________________________________________
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