Win Butler, Paul Banks and Lazy Comparisons


It’s hardly a revelation that I have very little love for most of what passes as music journalism. The main issue generally tends to be that critics, most of them frighteningly perpetual adolescents, fail to write above a teenaged-poetry level and are highly susceptible to jumping on bandwagons. I’m sure that their having a lot to write on deadline contributes to that state of affairs. Undetectable editorial interventions might also have something to do with the low quality of the writing.

Whatever the case may be, I’ve spent a good part of this week listening to the new Arcade Fire album, Neon Bible, and trying in vain to avoid the media onslaught that has accompanied it. Neon Bible CD CoverIt’s true that I’ve been a champion of the band since, on a tip from a friend, I went to see them at the Empty Bottle on Thanksgiving weekend in 2004. At the time, I remember being puzzled by the critical consensus that they were some kind of reincarnation of the Talking Heads. Was it because, I wondered, they included a cover of “Naive Melody” in their live sets? There was so much more to the band than that.

Now that the new album is out, the lazy comparisons continue. Since the group and its ambitions are so much better known (in unison, everyone say “next big thing”), the comparisons are also more grandiose. The AMG reviewer drops names like Bruce Springsteen and Roger Waters (as well as Garrison Keillor!), while the Pitchfork review leaves out Waters but keeps Springsteen as part of the story. The PopMatters review includes a reference to the E Street band, as does the New York Times—which drops in a U2 reference for good measure.

When there’s that much consensus, one can usually chalk it up either of two things: the utter obviousness of the observations or something in the press kit distributed to journalists. In this case, except for a couple of songs the comparisons don’t seem all that obvious, nor do the similarities seem that pervasive. I’ve listened to the album a couple of times now, and most of it sounds more unlike Springsteen’s work at any stage than it recalls it. Interestingly, the press bio on their label’s website doesn’t mention the Boss either (though the stories of the Arcade Fire’s rise to fame chronicled there are replicated in almost every review). So what’s the source of the comparison?

Someone apparently heard a Springsteen connection, and other reviewers, not wanting to appear daft, repeated it, though only one of the reviews I’ve seen actually gives an example: Adrien Begrand in the PopMatters review describes the outro of “Ocean of Noise” as evoking a restrained E Street Band. I can kinda hear what he’s gesturing toward, but I just hear the outro as elegiac. The E Street Band doesn’t have a patent on sounding that way. The more obvious points of comparison might be the tracks “Antichrist Television Blues” and “Windowsill.” Two tracks or three, however, are not enough support for a claim that the entire CD is Springsteen-esque.

(Reading through all of the reviews, I was reminded of how annoyed I was at the critics who, again lazily, compared Interpol to Joy Division back in 2002, based as far as I can tell only on the sound of Paul Banks’s baritone voice. Had they been listening more carefully, perhaps they might also have thrown in some John Lydon and Brendan Perry comparisons just to let us know they were doing their homework.)

Speaking of voices, what really gets me is that the most obvious comparison one might make has shown up only in a few places. That is, Win Butler’s singing voice more often than not eerily recalls Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. Sasha Frere-Jones, I just learned, made that observation in his New Yorker profile as did David Fricke in Rolling Stone. Wouldn’t it be great if more journalists, deadlines or no, actually made their own comparisons? Or at least verified the claims of others before mindlessly repeating them? I know. I know. I’m asking for too much…

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