Achtung Babies: Why Arcade Fire Are Having Their U2 Moment

Arcade Fire enter U2 portion of their careers with Reflekor, in Bigger Than The Sound.

If you stayed up late on Saturday night to catch Arcade Fire‘s wonderfully weird “Here Comes The Night Time” special, you probably awoke on Sunday morning — or afternoon — thinking two things: 1) Wait, Michael Cera is bilingual?!? and 2) Hey, those guys (and girls) actually looked like they were having fun.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, though how else can one sum up what was certainly one of the oddest things to be broadcast on network TV in quite a while, 30 minutes of comedy bits, celebrity cameos (James Franco as Keanu Reeves, Jason Schwartzman as a centaur), faux film trailers and sitcom parodies wrapped around a trio of never-before-heard songs from the band’s Reflektor album? It was tough, but after repeated viewings, I think I’ve managed to figure out what “Here Comes The Night Time” was truly about:

Arcade Fire are having their U2 moment.

And I’m not saying that just because Bono made a cameo in their special, either (though that certainly doesn’t hurt my hypothesis). In terms of style, sentiment and seemed intent, “Here Comes The Night Time” appeared to be the dress rehearsal for Arcade Fire’s very own Zoo TV Tour, U2′s epic, ’92-93 trek that spun media, iconography, and music into something entirely new: an arena-sized spectacle that was part pop art, part satire and all spectacle. It represented rock at perhaps its most self-aware, self-aggrandizing (and self-effacing), the production in which U2 poked holes in the public’s pre-conceived notions, simultaneously embracing the scope of their fame and mocking it through oversaturation and sensory overload.

Again, that’s an oversimplification, but the parallels are definitely there. When U2 released Achtung Baby — the album that inspired Zoo TV — in 1991, it was done out of a desire for reinvention. After all, they’d come off their most-successful album (1987′s world-uniting The Joshua Tree) and the subsequent Rattle and Hum, an album/live film that was successful, but earned criticisms for being too pretentious, too proselytizing. So what did they do to remedy all that? Head to Berlin, embrace the city’s burgeoning club scene, and create an album that redefined their sound, by embracing the streaked sonics of alt-rock, the artful artifice of David Bowie and the adventurous explorations of Brian Eno.

No one is going to confuse the success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs with that of The Joshua Tree, though there’s no denying that the album put the band into a different sphere: It debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and famously won the Grammy for Album of the Year. In the process, it also cemented Arcade Fire’s status as decidedly dour artists, a band concerned not so much with big things but big ideas and emotions. Also, like Rattle and Hum, it marked the height of the band’s obsession with American music … insomuch as it definitely harkens back to some of Springsteen’s early, earnest work.

How do they change the public’s perception? Well, based on the songs we’ve heard from Reflektor, it seems that, like U2, they’re exploding their sound, fully embracing synthesizers, dance music (the album was co-produced by former LCD Soundsystem man James Murphy ), stomping rock and the rhythms of Regine Chassagne’s Haitian roots. Oh, and based on what we saw in “Here Comes The Night Time,” they’re actually willing to cut loose a bit. Their special was silly — I mean, when have you ever seen this band smile so much? — and even a little surreal, as if they were saying “Look, we’re not always serious.”

That level of self-awareness was also a key component of Zoo TV. From the oversized stage and overload of media, to the live satellite hooks-ups, and onstage prank calls (Bono would routinely dial the White House during the show) it represented U2 on overdrive, mostly because they knew they were the only band capable of going to such extremes. That carried over into the various characters Bono would play throughout the show — “the Fly,” a cocksure shaman in wraparound shades, “Mirror Ball Man,” a smarmy televangelist in a shiny suit, and “MacPhisto,” who seduced the audience and spoke in a lithe British accent. They were all meant to poke fun at his larger-than-life personae, of course, though they also showed that both he and his bandmates were fully willing to embrace their superstardom … ironically, or not.

To a lesser extent, Arcade Fire seem to be tenuously embracing their status, too. During “Here Comes The Night Time,” they dressed in matching sparkly suits and wore comically oversized heads and frontman Win Butler performed throughout with a cartoonish bandit mask painted on his face. Whether he was playing a character or not remains to be seen, though he’s definitely learning the finer points of showmanship. There were also moments when he verbally undressed a roadie (played by “The Office” star Rainn Wilson, because why not? and performed with his bandmates in full lounge-act regalia, complete with ill-fitting wigs. Shoot, there’s an actual Mirror Ball Man in their video for “Reflektor,” which was directed by frequent U2 collaborator Anton Corbijn. Perhaps they realize that, now, they are a band capable of self-parody; largely because they’ve earned the right to be ridiculous.

There are other connections, too. The bright lights and mirrored surfaces of “Here Comes The Night Time” recall the sensory-assault of Zoo TV (not to mention the decadent, Red Light Distric feel of Zooropa, the album U2 recorded during a break in the tour). The special’s use of mixed media and messaging seem to be a tribute to that iconic tour, too. One also cannot overlook the fact that Arcade Fire opened for U2 during their 360 tour … maybe they were taking notes?

It bears mention that I haven’t heard any more of Reflektor than you have, which means I can’t say if it’s their Achtung Baby or their Zooropa (maybe it’s both … it’s a double-album after all); and, as I’ve mentioned several times throughout this piece, I am definitely guilty of oversimplifying things. And yet, there’s something comforting about the notion of Arcade Fire seizing the mantle from U2 and carrying it for the foreseeable future, not to mention the idea of Bono and the Boys acting as mentors. Call it the passing of the torch, if you will.

It would be fitting, too. After all, U2 have been a great band for more than 30 years now; they know that it takes guts, awareness, and a desire for reinvention to get there. Arcade Fire are just starting on their journey towards immortality … we can’t be sure if they’ll make it to the Promised Land, though their choice of shepherds certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.