Dedicated to those songs that I can’t stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Groovie Ghoulies’ “I’m Doin’ Fine,” Electric Six’s “Improper Dancing,” and Tender Box’s “Spectacular Spider-Man Theme.”
I don’t buy music every week, so when I go shopping I often pick up more than one album at a time. This is great and stupid, because while the one-stop shopping is an economic use of my time, I end up unfairly comparing two unrelated, dissimilar albums. If I’d purchased The Velvet Underground‘s first album on its own without the accompanying purchase of Van Halen II, I have a higher opinion of it today. When I bought the pair — for whatever reason — I couldn’t get into the trippy stylings of the Velvets because I was head over kicked heels for VH II. Since then I have grown and adapted from my initial impression, realizing it was unfair: Not only is Velvet decidedly overrated and more than a little dated, but the run of the final three songs of VH II (“D.O.A.,” “Women in Love” and “Beautiful Girls”) are better than anything Lou Reed could pretend to care about writing. Velvet Underground can’t touch VH II‘s ass-less chaps.
This comparison trend of mine was tested again when I received the dual gift of the Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible along with The Faces‘ A Nod Is As Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse, and if I’d been placing bets, I would have put it all down on the boozy bar rock of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Chuck Berry covers, dirty riffs, sexism… Wink is like a Stones cover album and should have swept me off my feet. I promised myself I’d listen to both albums all the way through once before allowing myself the privilege (or the handicap) of repeated listens. Wink won the first listen of the pair (which was chosen at random — I try to do these things fair since I understand my own psychosis better anyone).
But then I moved on to Neon Bible, which started with “Black Mirror”, and I forgot all about rooster hair cuts.
“Black Mirror” — in fact much of Neon Bible — is a fantastic musical creation forged from the qualities I find annoying in bands I don’t usually enjoy. The overt sincerity of U2, the airy musicality of the Talking Heads, the sing-it-to-Saturn of Bruce Springsteen, the symphonic back-up of Coldplay. Maybe it’s a ratio thing: I can’t get past these annoying bits with these bands because their music seems to offer little else. If things were more evened out, maybe I could actually manage to get through Achtung Baby. But somehow when these qualities join together in this Arcade Fire configuration, it sounds like the kind of noise that could consume the world.
At the risk of outing myself as a hack, “Black Mirror” is a classic example of an album launcher. Some Track One’s start an album only to get out of the way, and others announce the album’s presence and tell everyone to get on board fast. “Black Mirror” possesses an unrelenting drive, feeling at once out of control — like a stagecoach headed by rocket elephants — yet fully aware of where it’s heading. It may be aiming for a cliff, but it knew that from the start. The Arcade Fire have a major Bowie thing happening with most of their work, and that would be a hindrance if they didn’t wear it so well. One review of “Black Mirror” compared it to a reworking of the “Suffragette City” riff, but that misses the point. The song may cosmetically sound a little like “Suffragette”, but the culmination of all those textures brings intensity, depth, darkness and hope along with them. If anything, it feels like “Heroes”. Bittersweet, heartsick and romantic.
On the rare occasion I don’t repeat “Black Mirror” and actually allow another song the daunting task of following up, I half expect to hear Radiohead‘s “The National Anthem”. This would theoretically fit the mood, but where Kid A is an experiment in anti-music, “Black Mirror” is about music-music. It’s as pro-music as you can get. Kid A is clinical and shattered, Neon Bible is lush and voluptuous. Radiohead tends to write music to comment on music itself, but there’s no barrier separating you from the emotions and excitement of The Arcade Fire. Neon Bible gives a million of these kinds of emotional payoffs, but “Black Mirror” demonstrates them in the kind of way that tells you everything you’d ever want to know about the band, or hope to find.
Tension runs through the entire song, and it’s never released, only eased. The singing, instruments and song entirely build up to a cliff before “falling” into the chorus once again. Each verse is a remount back up that hill. The best example of this comes right in the middle. We build and build with the lyrics, and that familiar piano lick trickles in late enough to remind us it’s there and to keep us climbing. Then the lyric doesn’t lead directly into the chorus, but takes us to the “That curse is never broken” section, and it doesn’t get broken for many measures after. Win Butler suddenly breaks into a French version of the titular chorus, deftly giving the song a plateau but still no free-fall into the dark waters beneath. The backing vocals rise to the forefront after the full orchestra takes us through the chorus once again. “The kiss is never broken,” and neither is this rhythm. Butler talks to his mirror as everything seems to crescendo until we finally hit the water and gasp for air.
Individually as pieces, the music isn’t complicated at all. It’s a simple rhythm guitar lick, straight-forward drums, bass line, piano lick. That’s where the true power of the song originates: it’s not inventing new wheels to play with. It’s using all the wheels we already knew were available in a way we could only hope to achieve. The placement of these elements shows mastery. “Black Mirror” is one of those songs that is so good and so consuming and so powerful and so magnificent that you can’t imagine a single person in the free world who wouldn’t enjoy it. This is the curse of music loving — of course there’s someone out there who won’t like it, and even worse there are some who will simply dismiss it as, “Yeah… that’s alright.” I can understand not liking something completely, but when a song like this demands the kind of respect and attention it so obviously does, a mere dismissal like that would result in glove-to-face slaps in a more gentile era.
“Black Mirror” marks a year’s worth of Greatest Song at This Moment articles, and I’m thrilled beyond words that I can continue to enjoy this song without having to uphold my self-imposed moratorium on each artist I consume. If anyone wonders about the thesis of this project (i.e. “Trying to answer WHY these songs are so great at these moments”), I have no better answer concerning “Black Mirror” than I would for Van Halen II. The answer is: They’re the best.
Watch the “Black Mirror” video.