Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Record Label: Merge
Release Date: Aug. 3, 2010
It makes sense that an album called The Suburbs would be sprawling and expansive. It also makes sense that the album would maintain a sense of intimacy and familiarity, after all those four traits certainly define the suburban lifestyle. Of course, coloring the suburbs within those four words is selling them short, but it serves as a solid jumping off point for this, Arcade Fire's third album.
The disc opens with jaunty piano and Win Butler's meandering vocals. He throws in a falsetto halfway through and the entire performance moves along with more confidence than on any prior Arcade Fire album. To say that he's fine-tuned his vocal range would be selling him short, in truth he's honed in on who he is and what he can do and never once moves beyond that. Mid-tempo, familiar and decidedly lush, it's everything you'd expect from Arcade Fire and more.
The punchy and shuffling "Ready to Start," follows and it offers up verses such as, "Oh the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes, but they bow down to him anyway." As much a diatribe against corporate greed and teenager's blind hope it's a nice summation and makes for an earnest one-two punch. The groove song "Modern Man" is pleasant and amiable but far from a classic, calling it filler is probably a disservice, but championing it as anything else is probably foolhardy and hyperbolic.
The thrum of an acoustic guitar opens up the near-perfect saturnine affair "Rococo" a lush orchestral piece that is sweeping, cinematic and truly transcendent. The element of gravity and starkness in Butler's vocals marry well with Regine Chassagne's pixie vocals. And then finally things open up and expand on "Empty Room" a rousing cut with bristling guitar and dense rhythms. But why did the band wait so long to present some energy and why did it take this long for Regine to take over the mic?
"City With No Children" opens up a second set of songs and offers an old-fashioned melody with lines like, "I dreamt I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground. There was no life that we culled see, as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." That set of verses is probably the song's most memorable aspect and when that becomes the central talking point that's never a good thing. Of the next five songs, very few, if any are worth skipping. "Half Light I" is grandiose, elegant and striking (though it does suffer from weak vocals),
"Half Light II," is synth-heavy and bass-driven, "Suburban War" is everything that's right about Arcade Fire, while "Month of May" bristles with the same kind of urgency, potency and passion that made "Empty Room,' so indelible. Fiery, spunky and undeniably kinetic, "Month of May," is arguably one of The Suburbs' most defining moments. The languorous and heavy "Wasted Hours," is the first time on the disc that Butler sounds haggard, despondent and downright disappointed. The fact that the song documents "wasted hours," and a city that makes "you lose your head," works well within his weathered vocal delivery.
But at this point, one has to wonder, does it really have to go on? Couldn't the disc just end now? Do we really have to listen to more? Sure enough, the rising "Deep Blue" follows and implements the violin perfectly. There's probably better bands crafting chamber music, but if there are, this reviewer hasn't heard them. A twinkling piano kickstarts "We Used To Wait" and the cut is buttressed by a fluid sense of pace, an ass-kicking crescendo and the timeless refrain, "I hope that something pure can last." And then, as if to make their claim as one of the greatest contemporary bands on the planet, The Suburbs offers up two absolute head-turners.
"Sprawl I (Flatland)" is hushed, restrained and downright intoxicating. For all its moments of moving mid-tempo mastery and brimming bravado, there's no mistaking a dose of good, clean placidity and "Sprawl I," achieves that with aplomb. Butler's all-consuming vocal charisma weaves and ducks and every nuanced second is inviting, sensual and nothing short of heavenly.
Regine's synth-heavy "Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," makes the most of every second and never once disappoints. Why the song couldn't have appeared earlier is anyone's guess. And then rather strangely the disc ends with the violin-heavy outro "The Suburbs (continued)," Sadly, the song ends before it even begins and makes for a puzzling and disappointing finish to an otherwise engaging and inspiring listen.
And yet for all the positives, there's still a few complaints. Did The Suburbs really have to be this long? Couldn't at least two or three songs been cut back? Not only that, does Butler really have to mention the word "suburbs," at least a dozen times? Maintaining the arc of the concept album should not be that hard and not be that incessant.
He's a clever enough wordsmith that he can talk around it and gussy it up without beating the word to death. Sure he's trying to make a point, but there are ample amounts of ways to accomplish that. Additionally, vocalist Regine Chassagne feels criminally underutilized. Whether this was intentional or not, it's frustrating and puzzling.
But that honestly represents the only qualms available here. Producer Marks Dravs has once again continued his streak of working on transcendent and genre-defining albums and The Suburbs is no exception. Though it is lengthy and a lot to sit through –––– more than 70 minutes of music ––– there seems little reason to think this won't catapult Arcade Fire to even greater heights.
Then again, they've sold out Madison Square Garden on two consecutive nights and nearly all of their summer tour dates. And this is a year when most arenas are struggling to fill seats. That very fact and this very strong album, brings to mind one simple question, if this doesn't get people stoked about Arcade Fire, then what the hell will?
Very nice review for an astounding record, one I think you can pretty much put the "classic" stamp on already. Along with High Violet, it's one of those albums you can tell immediately is going to be era-defining, maybe not for the public at-large, but definitely for the music obsessed.
Great review. Album of the year so far. I know that it hasn't connected with some fans, but I think people need to learn to let go. Yes, Funeral is a masterpiece. No, you don't have to hold everything they do from now on to the expectation that it will be "Funeral Part II". After listening to it almost 20 times, it has grown to become their best album for me. It shows them truly growing as a band, and that they are willing to take risks by trying something new (Month of May and Sprawl II come to mind). And I feel as if there isn't any filler on the album. I think the closest to filler you get on here is Modern Man, so I'd have to agree with you on that part for sure.
Good review, but I feel that the things you bring up as faults of the album are misguided. The repetition of certain lines and ideas ("Going out for a drive" / the constant mentions of "The Suburbs") are completely necessary, in my opinion. The Suburbs go on and on and on and on, and it's just a constant repetition of what you've seen before - Chilis, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Starbucks, Chilis, Bed Bath....and so forth. Each time he brings these things up, especially the idea of going out driving as something that used to be relaxing and enjoyable becomes symbolic of the endless drag and ennui that bogs people down stuck in the plod of life.
All of that comes to a head in Sprawl I & II - they have to be at the very end of the album. Those suburbs that they lived in as children have become a giant, uniform monstrosity, in which they literally and figuratively can't find their way home. Sprawl II strikes me as the beaten down acceptance of this being the protagonists' lives now - Quit those pretentious things and just punch the clock.
I really wish I had preordered this and gotten the vinyl. Neon Bible didn't really catch on with me, so I didn't realize how much I would like this. I think I still am going to buy a physical copy, though.