The Suburbs – Arcade Fire (August 2010) (Revision)

The following review was a re-write that I did for my school paper and contains many ideas similar to those that I made in my write-up over a month ago.

What makes Arcade Fire so special is how wildly their lyrics and music resonate.  Their most effective tools include sincerity that approaches but never reaches corniness and a sweeping grandeur that would feel overreaching in the hands of nearly any other band.  Funeral’s songs about love and life made it the best album of the past decade, and the hugely underrated Neon Bible discusses today’s fear-instilled society.  Part of what made Funeral and Neon Bible so special was their distinct sounds.  Funeral was sprawling and spontaneous, with Owen Pallett’s string arrangements dominating, and Neon Bible surrounded its enduring melodies with a wall of sound, with an intensity sometimes accentuated by church organs.  Funeral made you feel alive; Neon Bible made you fear your death.  You’d expect an album called The Suburbs to elicit a feeling of nostalgia and longing for a childhood spent wasting time.  I love The Suburbs.  Don’t let this review make you think otherwise.  I’m going to be hard on Arcade Fire because I love Arcade Fire.

I’d hardly count Arcade Fire’s railing against the suburban lifestyle as a negative.  After all, as someone coming from Woodbury, I’ll be the first to tell you that the ‘burbs are filled with an excess of overprivileged white business-based families who gave up their ambitions of greater recognition long ago, and that’s exactly what this album is about.  Suburbia is attractive because the scenery is pleasant, and the evocative imagery of Arcade Fire’s lyrics reflect that even during the darker songs, but it’s repulsive because the people can be snobbish pests clinging to traditionalist ideals.  There’s no doubting that The Suburbs is a thematically powerful collection that a lot of us can relate to, but there are a few inherent consequences that come with these topics.

Win Butler is weary of the ever-advancing technology of today’s world.  Early on he quickly remarks about letter writing and turning our gadgets off, but it isn’t until “We Used To Wait” that he finally makes his statement.  He romanticizes snail mail to such darling extents (“Now it seems strange/How we used to wait for letters to arrive/But what’s stranger still/Is how something so small could keep you alive”) that you can’t help but be won over, regardless of how little you care to wait three days to receive a letter sent from across town.  Despite the Internet being largely responsible for Arcade Fire’s enormous success (a number one album and two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden), they long for the days of old when they would have received little to no attention.  They make this easy to swallow by longing for the past rather than indicting the future like Jack White recently did with his mislead “sea of cowards” remarks about the Internet.

Less winning, though, is when they decide to rail against the modern kids on “Rococo.”  “Rococo” is a song with fangs that lashes out against hipster mindsets, which is certainly odd considering how much hipsters have come to adore the band.  The idea of a hipster has become so twisted, with the word spoken either with negative connotation or ironic embracement, so it might be appropriate to say that “Rococo” is too little too late.  It’s not that I like hipsterism or dislike an angry Arcade Fire, it’s just that they seem to be insulting a core of their own fanbase, and that goes against their ever-present theme of unity.

Another defining trait of The Suburbs is that it kind of rocks.  For once, it feels like you could definitely get away with calling Arcade Fire “rock” without adding a caveat.  “Ready To Start” discusses the businessmen drinking the protagonist’s blood, showing that Win was always scared of abandoning his dreams for the purposes of making a living, but the “Now I’m ready to start” that accents the chorus feels empty.  The words have little to do with the story being presented and are saved by the preceding words “And if I was yours/But I’m not.”  “Ready To Start” is a very fun rocker with a very driving bass line, but it feels like their “Start Me Up.”  Not that I dislike The Stones’ “Start Me Up,” but Arcade Fire wearing that rock and roll hat makes me feel like they might eventually drift into musical complacency like, oh, say, The Rolling Stones.  The rock and roll shows up again on “Month Of May,” a very punkish number that accelerates early and doesn’t really let up.  While “Month Of May” is spirited, there is an offending line: “Two thousand nine/Two thousand ten/Wanna make a record how I felt then.”  Now, that’s not necessarily bad, but that sort of self-referential smartassery makes me feel like Arcade Fire is losing their confidence in their own sincerity.

Every track is very solid, even the one’s that I’ve ill-spoken of, and occasionally the album is brilliant musically.  “We Used To Wait” is a slow-boiling masterpiece that reaches brilliant heights, “Empty Room” is an eruption of glee and wonder that screams in and out of existence, and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is filled with the hope and longing that we’ve come to expect from the band.  Despite each song bringing in great arrangements and melodies, The Suburbs feels less musically distinct.  Songs like “Modern Man” and “City With No Children” are laid back and minimal, both uncharacteristic moves for the band, but despite their special nuances end up becoming part of an aural soup that lacks a specific flavor.  I’m not asking every song to sound identical, but even albums as unfocused as The White Album were very unique in sound.

I’d like to remind the reader that I love The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s tale of a couple getting trapped in and eventually escaping the setting that they grew up in.  It’s an album that makes me think about growing up in a location that I have a love-hate relationship with, and despite finding it somewhat tougher to relate thanks to the band’s lack of confidence, world weariness, and occasional bitterness, this album will mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.  After each previous album, Arcade Fire drastically changed their outlook on the world.  For the first time, I sincerely hope that they’re moving past their feeling.  Again.


Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 3:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

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