Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene Struggle to Remain Sane in an Unfair World
Art By John Garrison

Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene Struggle to Remain Sane in an Unfair World

Both bands' respective new albums represent a symbolic yin and yang that showcase contrasting viewpoints on how to deal with the social and political downturn of today.
August 3, 2017, 3:51pm

Pointing out bad things is easy. There is so much in the world that's objectively shitty right now, you don't really need me to list them. When so much changes quickly and exceptionally in disappointing ways, it's hard to look through the dark and see the light ahead. Though it's not as if we've forgotten to be positive through it, or that positivity is lacking. Last month, two Canadian bands who made it big during the indie rock boom of the early 2000s tackled these very similar themes on their respective fifth records. Toronto's Broken Social Scene released Hug of Thunder, heralding a return of hopeful horns seven years after Forgiveness Rock Record. Meanwhile, Montreal band Arcade Fire released Everything Now, a cynical, mournful record aimed at everything wrong with the world but set to a disco beat.

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Arcade Fire and BSS have a tendency to be self-aggrandizing, like lead singer Kevin Drew's past relentless teasing of hiatuses or Arcade Fire's exhausting album rollout. This is kind of the point of being a musician in the first place: it gives you a platform to say something that is important to you. Both bands—contemporaries of the mid 00s Canadian indie gold rush—are currently struggling with the midlife crises of what-the-fuck-are-we-doing to varying degrees of success. Broken Social Scene tackle the matters at hand with pointed exasperation. Their expression of panic and frustration with the world doesn't bog down the record because its execution comes with a sincere sentiment that it will (and has to) get better. With Everything Now, Arcade Fire not only twist the knife, as it were, about how awful everything is—they succumb to it, drowning in a cycle of aimless observations. The contrasting ideas on how to approach what's happening on their respective albums now seem to be an intuitive evolution for these bands—symbolic yin and yang reactions that also represent contrasting viewpoints of how to remain sane this era. It's these themes which propel the projects, however BSS succeeds because of its streamlined and idealistic attempts to deal with the world's stressors, while Arcade Fire mire themselves in cynicism with little reasoning or purpose.

Arcade Fire's Everything Now opens with a short, tone-setting track. "Everything Now (continued)" sounds like looping, fuzzy feedback as Win Butler sings "I'm in the black again." That looping sensation on "Everything Now (continued)" persists for the rest of the record. On "Signs of Life," there is a familiar, circular tale: going out, getting drunk, hanging out with strangers, smoking cigarettes, and trying to find a connection. When the latter isn't there, as Butler sings cynically, "we do it again." For country-disco hybrid "We Don't Deserve Love," Butler sings, "Looking down at all the wreckage/ When we met, you'd never expect this/ And you said, maybe we don't deserve love." It's unexpectedly morose. Arcade Fire (and us by proxy) are stuck in a moment, in a sensation, a thought; consumed by the digitization of this world, the garbage populated in it, and how "every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn't live without." It's hard not to be consumed by the darkness on this record. Even the upbeat disco and synths, vocal whoops, and trumpets—all of which are actually very good on the album—cannot save us and them from the black hole of emotions they've made.

As Hug of Thunder goes on, Broken Social Scene offers a sense of how absurd the world seems to them right now on "Vanity Pail Kids," singing "You wanna be the size of your sex/ You wanna be the size of your mess/ You wanna be the size of what's next/ You must make sure that you steal it." If the entire record were comprised of songs like "Vanity Pail Kids," it would surely be a slog to get through, and parts of the track hits a bit too obviously along with its accompanying video. "Skyline" is thematically vague in its messaging; teetering on destruction or, sonically at least, a happier mood and leaves the listener confused. The places the album falls short are anchored by esoteric, introspective songs like "Hug of Thunder," where Feist interrogates with "certain times in our lives come to take up more space than others/ And time's gonna take it's time."

During BSS' enormous sounding final track, "Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse," which admittedly, is a title that generates eye-rolling, Drew is pleading with us. He sings: "our heroes are dicks" and "words of hope are a joke for the numb." It's frustration but it's a reckoning, one that BSS are living and fighting. Régine Chassagne does something similar on "Electric Blue," a standout song on Everything Now. Chassagne's frustration, her contempt, is a statement much like BSS' as she sings, "Now you've got me so confused/ 'Cause I don't know how to sing your blues/ Jesus Christ, what could I do?/ I don't know how to sing your blues." They aren't tip-toeing around an issue by being overtly cynical or playfully trolling. Both are simply honest. In an interview with Zane Lowe for Beats1, Win Butler said people sometime mistake his lyrics as observations for someone else; that his lyrics aren't coming from him for him. That moment of transparency is welcome after a guerilla marketing campaign and album rollout that essentially undercuts all of that; posting fake reviews of their album, articles, and more that suggests a bigger observation.

In an interview with Noisey, Drew, along with Charles Spearin and Brendan Canning of BSS, echoed that while the songs dealt with their specific struggles to understand and participate in the world now, they hoped it would resonate and hit more broadly. Drew said, "You want people—if they are listening—to not feel alone. That's it. That's all music was for me… I never felt alone with music."

Broken Social Scene's Hug of Thunder isn't without its harsh or eye-rolling barbs directed at the way the world has evolved as they aggressively mourn what they think we've lost along the way. But there is a sliver amid the harder themes that things, like the second last track says, are actually going to get better. It's not naive. It is motivating. Meanwhile, Arcade Fire's Everything Now got dragged by prominent publications for falling short, and though internet fervor might make it appear worse than it actually is, there's a reason. Its messaging just isn't executed well. Their trolling marketing didn't help their cause, even if, sincerely, they believe their intention and art.

This essay is probably an example of something they hate—it's the kind of content waste is constantly churned out in our world. Which, fine, that's fair, but what do we do? They don't offer any answers, which means the sort of disappointment and disillusionment that Arcade Fire sing about on the record becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. They are disappointed in people, the world, and in turn, we become disappointed in them. This is part of the cycle of idolatry in music and why ultimately Hug of Thunder resonates so deeply. Broken Social Scene gives you more tools to actually cope. Musicians ought to help us navigate the frustrations of the world; the art created out of that is vital. But not at the expense of not moving the conversation forward. Because then they, too, are part of the problem.

Sarah is currently on vacation. Follow her on Twitter if you must.