In the NME review of Arcade Fire’s upcoming third album The Suburbs, Emily Mackay writes that the record could be ‘their Automatic For The People’. When I read that sentence something like the dropping of a penny occurred in my head: why hadn’t I noticed similarities between those two bands before? In the ten years that I’ve been doing end-of-year album lists only Arcade Fire have been #1 twice. Both of their previous albums have been my favourite record of their respective years; the highest placing for an REM album in that time has been #18 for Accelerate in 2008. But the time was when the Athens band was one of my absolute favourites. At some point Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992) became sacred artefacts amongst my group of music-loving friends - examples of the kind of intricate, layered pop albums no one was making anymore. I loved Monster (1994) too, but possibly that was influenced in some degree by it being the first album I owned on CD.
When New Adventures in Hi-Fi came out in 1996 it took a while to sink in, but I was finding new things to love with every listen, and in time it became one of my favourite REM records. To this day, though I now know it so well, I can still put it on and be floored by its inventiveness, its light and shade and its boldness in everything from instrumentation to song construction to production.
But back to Arcade Fire. When Funeral came out in 2004 I was stunned by it almost instantly. This was at a time when I was hungry for something new-sounding, and here was this odd Canadian septet with a record about community and place that was a little creepy and at the same time warm and welcoming… I was knocked out. That record came out in February and lasted the whole year to be my number one by some margin. Neon Bible (2007) took longer for me to fully appreciate. Arcade Fire were brave enough to broaden their scope somewhat on that album, and to paint with quite a different colour palate such that I had to go through a process of letting go some of the things I thought I knew about the band and approach them again with a clear slate.
They’ve always seemed such a unique band to me. There are plenty of groups with whom they share some qualities (eg. The Decemberists’ moody urban-pastoralism; Dirty Projectors’ choral feel etc.) but Arcade Fire have a quality I find almost undefinable: something familial, rooted and genuine - something like honesty. I’ve long felt a similar quality in Michael Stipe’s lyrics and in his voice, and in the enveloping, subtle music REM have been recording for almost 30 years. Only upon reading that remark in NME this morning however, did I discover a connection that immediately made so much sense. On the magazine’s cover Arcade Fire are referred to as the ‘saviours of rock’, which also feels about right; they seem to be of the correct temperament, and possessed of the boundless talent required for a long career. If their Automatic for the People is coming out next week, imagine what their New Adventure in Hi-Fi will sound like.