Springsteen, Arcade Fire and the Ecstasy of Influence
Understanding Arcade Fire’s Debt to Springsteen
What do The National’s “High Violet,” The Gaslight Anthem’s “American Slang” and Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” all have in common—besides being three of the biggest rock releases of the summer? Bruce Springsteen. Nearly every review of all of these records mentions the Boss; nearly every band profile notes his influence. Bruce has become music crit shorthand for male-dominated rock bands who make self-consciously “important” records that place sincerity over irony, ambition over intimacy—bands that, despite their misgivings, are willing to play the big arenas and win hearts and minds. “I think it’s important, if you’re going to do it, to do it for real,” Arcade Fire’s 30-year-old frontman Win Butler told the Times last month. A 30-year-old Springsteen would have said the same thing.
On the one hand, all this has a lot to do with lazy journalism. When a trope takes hold, particularly one as handy as “The Boss,” it’s hard to ignore. But there are also real similarities in the music. For The Gaslight Anthem, a scrappy punk band originally from New Jersey, most of the Bruce-isms can be sourced to singer Brian Fallon’s lyrics, particularly on the band’s superb third LP “American Slang.” Like early Springsteen, every song is driven by the wish to embrace (or escape from) the vagaries of youth. “And it feels like all you have to do is step outside / Stop pacing around and waiting for some moment that might never arrive,” Fallon sings on “Stay Lucky,” a lyric that neatly encapsulates the entire narrative sweep of “Born to Run.”
For The National, the similarities are less lyrical, and more situational. Singer Matt Berninger’s characters are the Springsteen heroes you find at the bar after the end of a long day (though in this case they’ve just pulled an 8-hour shift at the office, not a 10-hour shift on the assembly line). This is the darker, lonelier Bruce—the Springsteen of “Racing in the Street” or “Mansion on the Hill” (a song The National have covered). And the music on “High Violet,” though far lusher and more meticulous than classic Springsteen, is anthemic in the same ways. The National sympathize deeply with their bummed-out bohos, and the music, abetted by the Dessner brothers’ chiming guitars and Bryan Devendorf ‘s marshal time-keeping, never lets you forget it.
The Arcade Fire’s debt to Springsteen is the most significant. Pitchfork is certainly right to compare their latest and most extravagant record to Bruce’s 1980 double-LP “The River.” Like that record, “The Suburbs” (also a double album), is something of a summation of the Montreal band’s primary obsessions: loss, nostalgia, youth, marriage, authenticity, the comforts of small-town life versus the thrills of the big city, and the power of rock ‘n’ roll to make sense of it all. These, of course, are the same concerns that animate “The River” as well as Bruce’s best records from the ’70s. And as newly-minted arena rockers (Arcade Fire played Madison Square Garden twice last week), Butler and his comrades are hoping to do what Springsteen tried to do 30-plus years ago: hold on to their integrity while playing to 45,000 people.
Given all this, it surely comes as no surprise that these bands are pals with Bruce. He’s shared the stage with the Arcade Fire, and offered sage career advice to The National before “High Violet” made them one of the biggest bands in indie-rock. The Boss has been most vocal in his support of The Gaslight Anthem (who happened to play The Stone Pony last week), a fact that has much to do with their shared Jersey past: The band used to be based in New Brunswick and Fallon grew up in Red Bank, a longtime Springsteen haunt. It seems like Springsteen has shown up at nearly every major festival the quartet has played recently.
But as much as the Bruce connection is organic to these records (and to the real relationships he maintains with these bands), Springsteen’s domination of the critical conversation has at least as much to do with our needs and desires, irrespective of whether “American Slang” actually sounds like “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The economy is on life support, we just witnessed one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, our fortunes in Afghanistan have never looked grimmer, once-sensible lawmakers are calling for hearings to change the 14th Amendment. There’s a growing sense that we’ve reached some tipping point, that the center cannot hold, that we are, to put it mildly, fucked.
Springsteen, one of those rare artists venerated by both hipsters and casual music fans, seems the perfect antidote for all that’s ailing us, the blue-collar wise man with stubble on his chin and gravel in his throat who can say the words we’re all yearning to hear: It’s going to be alright. We need, in other words, to hear Bruce in these records—now more than ever. Berninger’s eerie non-sequiturs are leagues from anything on “Born to Run”; his darkly humorous line on “Conversation 16”— “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”—is more Nick Cave or Tom Waits than Springsteen. But in Berninger’s mahogany baritone and in the epic swell that surrounds him, we hear intimations of The Boss’ timeless rumble—and we are comforted.
It’s no coincidence that the Bruce who shows up in the same sentence as the Arcade Fire and The National (and Against Me! if you’re looking for another example) is the Bruce of the ’70s and early ’80s—the era that produced “Born to Run” and “Darkness” and “Nebraska.” That’s back when many of today’s critics were toddlers, or just glimmers in their parents’ eyes—the same parents who were massive Springsteen fans. Today, while Rome burns and the economy withers, Springsteen signifies a simpler, happier, more authentic time before the Internet split music fans into tribes and made record-buying an act of decadent bourgeois nostalgia. Whether he’s actually there or not, we hear Bruce in today’s “important rock records” because we want to, and because The Boss very nearly invented the whole idea of the “important rock record” in the first place. Now at 60, he’s become its most prized protector.
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