Secret Meeting score: 78
by Philip Moss
Glastonbury headliners, Grammy Award Winners, three UK number one albums, over three million album sales, and sharing a stage with David Bowie while he he sings one of your songs at one of his last ever live performances. All quite incredible achievements for an indie band from Montreal. But back in 2003, the then largely unknown Arcade Fire self released their debut, self titled, self financed EP at shows and through their website to minimal fanfare. After a label battle to sign the group, it was re-released through Merge Records following the monumental success of their debut album, Funeral. It was also re-issued again this weekend, only this time pressed for the very first time on vinyl (translucent blue wax to be precise) for Record Store Day.
Looking back, the first thing that leaps out from opener, Old Flame, is the simplicity. Richard Reed Parry’s pared back, simple home recording is a world away from the bombastic direction Arcade Fire have headed over recent years. And it’s all the better for it. ‘Your eyes are flutterin’, such pretty wings. A moth flying into me- same old flame again,’ the band’s leader, Win Butler, sings in a voice that’s still lispy, sometimes even squeaky, and without the punch he’s gone on to find.
His then girlfriend (now wife) and co-songwriter, Regine Chassagne, has always sounded like Bjork: the colossal Sprawl II – Mountains Beyond Mountains – for me, arguably, the group’s finest moment – emphasises this point if ever you were unsure. But where Sprawl II channels Bjork, twists the influence, adds an Abba disco beat and spews out something new, I’m Sleeping In A Submarine could simply just be Bjork. In fact, if someone told you it was, you’d have absolutely no reason to not believe them. Regine has clearly studied the Icelandic pop queen’s records so closely she is able to mimic her cadence exactly. The ironically childlike, nursery rhymes continue from the first track, but the tone and imagery is as harsh as ever- ‘I’m sleeping in the battleship, I’m sleeping in a submarine, I’m sleeping in a fighter plane, I’m sleeping going down the drain’ – as Win and Regine, even at this very early stage, lyrically touch upon the themes of isolation and fighting against the odds that will define their careers as wordsmiths- ‘A cage is a cage, Is a cage, is a cage!’
By far the most famous cut on the EP is No Cars Go. A song they re-recorded for their 2006 LP, Neon Bible. But unlike Markus Dravs’ glorious, tecnhicoloured production, which utilised the ambience and acoustics of the Petite Église church in Montreal’s suburbs, expensive microphones and the ears of the world’s most expensive mix engineer, Mark ‘Spike’ Stent (Madonna, Oasis, U2), the original version carries a fuzz and a lack of clarity that anyone who’s dabbled in home recording will know holds a beauty that often can’t be replaced, no matter the budget. And although the arrangements are embellished further than the likes of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, or Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, it can often be the case that the vibe is as important as the song, particularly when the two collide in perfect harmony.
Perhaps the most naive sounding moment on the EP, both in terms of its lyrical content and its lo-fi production is The Woodlands National Anthem. Over brash acoustic guitars, Win and Regine duet, displaying a sense of alienation and isolation that many millions of teens across the world can relate to: ‘I guess we’ll have to move, the neighbourhood is on to us. Let’s join the little babes throwing rocks in front of us. Riding on my bicycle, I pass my sister on a bus. Let’s take the country road before our parents send for us’. Win Butler has made a career out of writing ‘outsider’ songs – stories of young people wanting to escape their parents’ rules and society’s pre-determined ideals. Its juxtaposition of childlike imagery and anarchist ideas means even at this early stage in his career he was setting out a blueprint that meant millions of people – young and old – from around the world could identify with him.
Perhaps best foreshadowing the eclectic nature the band’s journey would take them on over the last fifteen years is Headlights Look Like Diamonds – a song that was famously resurrected in 2013 for the Reflektor tour. With its disjointed structure and loose forays into disco, it fits perfectly alongside some of the band’s later career moments. However, continuing the link back to childhood, the final verse of ‘All after all, now we aware, All after all, the time we share. There’s so much fears of world. Hopes of world, tears of world’, was taken from a music box that Regine had illustrated and shared with Win when they first began writing together, before refraining over a choral of ‘oohs’ that have gone onto signature so many of the band’s most popular songs. The EP’s final track, Vampires/Forest Fire, builds from gentle, hushed beginnings into a chaotic coda that isn’t felt anywhere else on the record, and also shows a glimpse of the punk spirit that’s been exhibited in their live performances to this day.
Pre-dating Funeral, arguably one of the greatest debut albums of all time, means that the songs on this collection have been overshadowed by their older, more honed and carefully crafted successor. But that does not take away from the sheer beauty that this collection contains. The seven slices of pubescent, indie pop are essential listening for all Arcade Fire fans, no matter where your entry point was.