The music world was rocked in 2022 when vocalist Will Butler declared that he had left Arcade Fire. The circumstances were amicable, he explained, but it was simply something he had to do for himself, and his development as a person, as well as an artist. But it did leave people wondering what is to become of the band he fashioned, moulded and formed in the image of one Robert Zimmerman.
No matter the orchestral flourishes, or explosive drum fills that entered into the work, the songs were tailored to the basic rhythms of Bob Dylan’s work. The tunes are deeply aphoristic, creating a new sense of parable in the field of rock, lacing the compositions with a collection of brightly lit, darkly humourous messages that mocked the sensations of the audience’s perception The tunes were a mixture of humour, haughtiness and helium induced hysteria.
“My goal in art is to be like Moby-Dick”, he once said, explaining that when he first came across Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel at the tender age of 18, he expected a distinguished work about facing against the rise of upheaval and the changing tides spread across the dangerous ocean. “But the first 100 pages are literally slapstick comedy and jokes about whale penises. Even something like Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is written in a really ironic style. The narrator is self-consciously pathetic but really angry at the world, but also making jokes.”
In some ways, Arcade Fire, like Dylan, mock the arena of celebrity as tellingly as they do in pandering to the trappings and expectations of rock. When the band performed ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, it was done with equal parts reverence and indolence to the work that had pre-empted their arrival, and apathy, before reigniting the spark and spirit that had once been deemed unworthy of either their attention or ambition. In its own way, the tunes demonstrate the witticism, laconicism, lethargy, danger and excitement that makes up this world, all of which is evident from the recording.
Butler seemed happy to embrace the comparison with the great songwriter himself.“It was partly inspired by Bob Dylan, who used to announce that certain songs were based on headlines,” Butler says of the project. “It would be a song he wrote in two weeks or something, such as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, which is one of the greatest songs ever. So I’ve set myself an impossible bar.”
Arcade Fire held as grand interest in the Bible as Dylan did, understanding that the work holds spiritual, as well as philosophical, connotations in the world at large. What Dylan brought the world wasn’t clarity, but conviction, ably helping them to throw caution to the wind, and to reward their listeners with works that were more detailed, more thoughtful and arguably better attuned to the movements and moments that make up the mosaic of life in question.
As a general rule of thumb, artists tend to be more meticulous in their understanding of the world at large, but they aren’t always interested in showcasing their viewpoints to the world that demands spectacle and sincerity from them.
So it’s to the band’s credit that they understand the importance of dark humour in their rendition of an artist who has been treated with too much analysis in recent times. The band’s direct, more shimmering rendition of the song breathes new life into ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, creating a new sense of clarity and cohesion into the mix. Best of all, the song holds a vocal that’s even more impassioned than the one Bryan Ferry committed to his recording of the song.
Dylan covers are a dime a dozen: There are more recordings of his work than there are songs in his sprawling back catalogue, which considering the density of his songbook really is saying something. The band are more expressive and idiosyncratic in their outlook, particularly when it comes to mining material from other sides and corners of the world. They held a Canadian view of the world, much like Lou Reed‘s perspective stemmed from New York, and U2’s is centred on Ireland.
The band rarely gave much away, and seemed determined to stick it out, which is why Butler’s departure is all the more unsettling. He was their captain, their director, their Ahab, driven by a burning desire to reach their sense of destination and conclusion. What he brought to the band wasn’t necessarily a sense of professionalism, but a sense of pathos, and deep-rooted irony. He was, in other words, their Dylan.
It’s hard to imagine Arcade Fire continuing without him, but the band are determined to follow their own paths, and maybe in a position to press upon their perspectives of life when the time comes. Hopefully, they will continue to sing Dylan.