Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Album cover
Indie
Merge Records
Arcade Fire
The Suburbs
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs Review rating:
4.5
User rating:
Average: 4.2 (13 votes)

There is no band out there who does it quite like Arcade Fire does it.  Over the past 6 years, this group of Canadians has effortlessly combined the the last five decades - if not the last 300 years - of musical exploration into three distinct handfuls of songs.  2004's Funeral was one of the best albums of the 00's, a powerful symphony dedicated to death - the death of childhood, the death of friends, the death of order and law, the death of the previous indie scene.  It ran the gamut of emotions, and it is possibly one of the best albums ever written.  2007's Neon Bible showed a band attempting to turn their focus to culture as a whole rather than the singular experience of each person.  Tearing into TV, religion, work, and every other idol of American culture, Arcade Fire nearly hit the mark a second time.  But by the barest sliver of space, the dart landed off-center, and the album - while a major force in music and a collection of amazing songs - wasn't quite as coherent as Funeral.

And now comes a third album.  An album that many fans believed could be Arcade Fire's redemptive stroke; an album that could be even better than Funeral.  For the third time, the band made the decision to record not just a collection of songs but a collection of related ideas.  Not quite a concept album, just like their last two, The Suburbs nevertheless retains a certain musical and lyrical consistency.  And just like Funeral and Neon Bible, The Suburbs presents a philosophy of life that is as hopeful and uplifting as it is pessimistic and cynical.  It is a potentially delicious recipe for a third release; the only question is if Arcade Fire can pull it off or not.  And the truth is...they don't quite.  Or, more precisely, they do at some points and don't at others.

But there is no consensus on this from the critical crowd.  While a few various unreliable sources will doubtlessly give The Suburbs a perfect score - one or two already have - they are delusional.  The writers at Spin overestimate the album; the writers at Sputnik underestimate it; and as usual, Pitchfork gets it pretty much spot on.  Slightly better than Neon Bible at a rating of 8.6, this is the most accurate review available.  But it really doesn't matter what the critics say.  It matters what the albums means to you and to the music scene as a whole.

The title track introduces the album flawlessly.  It is an acoustic guitar-based ode to a society that prides itself on mediocrity while secretly cherishing its sadomasochism.  It is a commentary on the sprawl (Arcade Fire's accurate label for the expanse of the suburbs) of American civilization, but it is also full of confusion.  Does "sometimes I can't believe it/ I'm moving past the feeling" signify an optimistic move away from The Suburbs?  Or does it represent an apathetic numbness towards life?  Win Butler's careless falsetto seems to lean towards the latter, but with Arcade Fire, who knows?  The song does one more important deed: it establishes lyrical themes that will reoccur throughout the album.  The first is the concept of waiting and waiting for something that will never arrive - or has already arrived surreptitiously - and the second is the revisited theme of "kids" that has appeared on each Arcade Fire album.  Foucault would say that the band is exploring the taboo area of juvenile sexuality and its effects on our culture; I'd like to agree, but I'm not sure there's enough support that thesis.

Regardless, the album continues.  "Ready To Start" is a radio-friendly groove-based track about coming into your own and making your own decisions; "Modern Man" takes a palm-muted guitar into a relaxed critique of the product of The Suburbs: the Suburbanite.  It recalls The Boss' later work, a comparison that not only reoccurs throughout The Suburbs, but in many reviews of the album.  To complete the opening quartet of songs, "Rococo" focuses on critiquing the hipsters of this generation, those who listen to music to "be cool" rather than to derive a deeper understanding of existence.  The word "rococo," repeated in a staccato wave during the chorus, is a period of meaningless and shallow visual art from the 18th century, which as a metaphor accurately reflects much of the narcissistic and indulgent music that has been released recently.  Despite such ignoble intents, the song manages to be one of the most memorable earworms on The Suburbs.

But once the first quarter of the album has passed, Arcade Fire seem to lose a little of their touch.  "Empty Room," despite a few gorgeous opening seconds of classical strings, quickly devolves into a semi-punkish beat and forgettable vague lyrics, not unlike the third-quarter track "Month of May."  The latter, however, at least manages to invoke The Ramones rather than Garage.  "City with No Children" is like "Crown of Love" in that it is memorable, enjoyable, well-written - and yet, it feels like Arcade Fire are trying a little too hard.  Its dystopian lyrics, which cannot help but recall 2006's hit film Children of Men, ponder a post-apocalyptic world with an underground highway to Houston and an explicit commentary on Christianity: "you never trust a millionaire/ quoting the sermon on the mount."  But then, with his usual lyrical twists, Butler admits that he is scared that he might be just like them, too caught up in his own ideology to see the world as it truly is.

The two "Half Light" songs do little to forward the album, but instead leave it on the verge of success.  Continuing the post-apocalyptic lyrics, Arcade Fire segue into another Springsteen-esque half-Americana chorusless piece, "Suburban War," which is really just part two of the title track, sans the memorable moments.  "Wasted Hours" and "Deep Blue" finish up the third quarter of the album with two middle-of-the-road downtempo contemplations.  The songs aren't bad; they're not even weak.  They're just too average for Arcade Fire, and they echo the band's pre-Funeral material: philosophical, sprawling, relaxed, and altogether ordinary.  Which is the complete opposite of Arcade Fire's masterpieces.  When the band is on target, they are unique.  When they release an album of 16 tracks at what future critics may call the least creative portion of their career, some of them are bound to be plain.

But "We Used to Wait" is not plain.  In fact, it may just be the best song of 2010.  This is what The Suburbs could've been - a synthesis of the band's past work and their current mindset, all thrown together with a bouncing piano, an epic chorus that doesn't appear till halfway through the track, and intimate lyrics that anyone in the 21st century can identify with.  It heralds "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," another of the album's highlights, and with Régine Chassagne's light vocals to anchor it, the song becomes a Depeche Mode-like synthpop gem.  "Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small that we can never get away from the sprawl," Arcade Fire's other vocalist sings on her best track since "In the Backseat."  Finally, The Suburbs feels complete.  And just in time, as the 16th and final song is merely a reimagination of the title track, barely reaching one and a half minutes.

The truth is, The Suburbs is too uneven.  It reaches for glory, but settles far too often for mediocrity.  It asks to be important even as it admits that it isn't.  It tries too hard at times, and at other times many listeners will be convinced that it doesn't try hard enough.  It contemplates the condition of America, using its destructive midpoint between the urban and the rural as a metaphor for the inability of 21st-century Americans to move beyond their forgettable and inane lives, throwing away their addictions for a taste of real life.  But it doesn't show a glimpse of that real life, nor does it ground itself in reality.  And yet, all that being said, the album contains spectacular highlights and gorgeous moments.  When a band as talented as Arcade Fire don't ground themselves, they make a spectacular show in the sky when the lightning bolts do hit.  And thus, The Suburbs contains some of the band's best material as well as some of their worst.  If only they'd have made it a 10-track, 40-minute interlude to their career, leaving everything from the middle quarters besides "City with No Children" and "Month of May" as B-sides, I might be able to call The Suburbs a masterpiece.  Rather, it is the next best thing: a wonderful album.  It just isn't what many of us hoped it would be: the best album of the '10s.

1. The Suburbs
2. Ready to Start
3. Modern Man
4. Rococo
5. Empty Room
6. City with No Children
7. Half Light I
8. Half Light II (No Celebration)
9. Suburban War
10. Month of May
11. Wasted Hours
12. Deep Blue
13. We Used to Wait
14. Sprawl I (Flatland)
15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
16. The Suburbs (Continued)

Arcade Fire is an orchestral indie rock band which formed in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2003. The band consists of Win Butler (vocals, guitar, piano), Régine Chassagne (vocals, accordion, keyboards, hurdy gurdy, drums), Richard Reed Parry (bass, guitar), William Butler (keyboards, guitar), Tim Kingsbury (bass), Sarah Neufeld (violin), and Jeremy Gara (drums). Howard Bilerman, who played drums on the album Funeral, has since moved on to other projects. Montreal percussionist Dane Mills performed on the EP and in early live shows. ... read more

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