Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Album Review: The Suburbs, by the Arcade Fire

4.25 out of 5 Records

The best characterization of the Arcade Fire's music that I ever heard was made as I played their debut album Funeral for a friend while driving back in 2005.  He simply pointed at the sun setting over the top of a giant hill on the horizon and said, "This sounds like what that looks like."

The truth in that statement and the whole aura around the band make it hard for anyone who has been paying attention to what’s been going on in music for the past six years not to love the Arcade Fire. Funeral is not only an indie staple but one of the defining records of the “aughts”, helping to create a movement that would ensure a final end to the age of teen-pop after the Strokes’-led garage rock revival began to fade. Their second effort, Neon Bible, wasn’t quite as impressive, but was consistent enough in quality and style to prevent the nostalgia left by Funeral from wearing off.  Heck, regardless of your taste, you have to give some credit to a band that actually makes albums in 2010 - cohesive full-lengths works of art that tackle lofty issues like community, death, and religion - in a time when your standard chart topping artist is focused on only writing catchy choruses with empty lyrics. Perhaps even more impressive is that they sound sincere doing it.

Other things: They’re from Canada. They’ve received the blessing of art-pop godfathers like the Davids Bowie and Byrne. One of them looks kind of like Napoleon Dynamite. I could go on for hours.

Don't steal his tots. Yea, you know who I'm talking about.

While the subject of their third LP is probably not as grandiose as their prior albums’, it’s one that is probably as definitive in the lives of modern American youths. Most kids will classify themselves as having grown up in the suburbs, and know the love/hate relationship with it all too well. On the one hand, it’s the place we grew up, the place where we experienced so many things for the first time. On the other, many of those experiences we’d like to forget. Suburbia is where we struggled to find our place in the world against the backdrop of boredom and Bud Light, and on The Suburbs the Arcade Fire attempts to provide the memory of that struggle with their own soundtrack.

In the end they pull it off, and though this time some of the tracks have an initially off-putting but inevitably effective Springsteen-esque rock vibe, the band is basically up to their same tricks: the persistent beat of a heavy bass drum, the use of double time, pop symphonies as enriched with ethereal vocal choruses as they are with elevating strings. Win Butler is still most convincing when his howl is angry or murmur defeated, and the band again proves that they’re at their best when delivering epic anthems with the heartbeat of house music.  Like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” off of Funeral, the heaviest hitting tracks are amongst the most memorable, including “Empty Room,” “Half Light II (No Celebrations),” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” There are refreshing developments on these tracks as well: the voice of Régine Chassagne is prominently featured on all of them, whereas on prior albums on which the former jazz singer seemed content to take a “backseat” to husband Butler, and they also feature the band seriously delving into synths for the first time, providing addictive accompaniments that are just begging to be re-mixed.

On The Suburbs, Win's music proves to be more like Bruce's, in both style and content, than most hipsters are probably willing to admit.

While at first listen the album may be impressive but missing something, it is inevitably the band’s ability to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts that make them such a promising and talented group. For example, initially the opening and title track may appear unwieldy, with clanging guitar, near honky-tonk piano, and a generally overly optimistic clamor for Butler’s less-than uplifting chorus, “Sometimes I can’t believe it/I’m moving passed the feeling”. But the band ups the aggression and turns town the brightness as they somehow lead us seamlessly into the profound vow to aesthetic endeavors, “Ready to Start”, which promises “If the businessmen drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would/Then I guess I’ll just begin again”. By the album’s end they bring us back to the opener with “The Suburbs (continued)”, this time with Butler accompanied only by strings, allowing us to focus on the vocal melody and bringing to light the whole new context that has been spun over the course of the album. Butler pins down that love/hate relationship with the suburbs in one refrain, “If I could have it back/All the time that we wasted/You know I'd love to waste it again.” For me, the same song I skeptically dismissed, pessimistically assuming that no band in the modern age could deliver this consistently, had now given me a chill.  As my car CD player cycled back to beginning of the album, I suddenly couldn’t wait to hear the whole thing again.


  1. Mike Davis of the BBC, in reviewing The Suburbs, called the album the band’s OK Computer, which was also my first thought upon realizing that the band had again proved their consistency and added a profound third album to their portfolio, cementing themselves as masters of their genre. Perhaps more exciting than that fact is the anticipation of where The Arcade Fire goes from here. Now that the band has seemingly perfected on what they’ve been doing all along, anything less than a ground-breaking foray into new territory, as Kid A was, will be a disappointment, and will determine whether the group goes down as merely a great band or something timeless and iconic. In this writer’s opinion, a more electronic album, along the lines of The Suburb’s “Half Light II” and “Sprawl II”, might meet that challenge.