Album Review of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”

08/11/2010

Last week, The Arcade Fire released their much anticipated third album, The Suburbs, on Merge Records. As you may have heard by now, the critics are pretty fired up about it. So, before I go any further, let me say this: If you’re a fan of The Arcade Fire, go out and buy this album, download it or, for the mavericks, find it on BitTorrent. If, on the other hand, you’re new to the band but want to hear what all this “Arcade Fire fuss” is about, I would recommend starting with their debut album, Funeral, or their sophomore release, Neon Bible, before committing to a serious relationship.

To give you a sense of what I mean by the critics being “fired up” about The Suburbs, Paste Magazine has already gone so far as to say that The Arcade Fire has now entered the musical pantheon alongside Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Radiohead: “We now live in the age of Arcade Fire, the Montreal conglomerate … that in the last six years has stepped forward, willing and wholly assured that they’re the ones to carry such a title.”

Personally, I think it’s a little early to shower The Arcade Fire with that kind of slobbery praise. There are at least two albums by those aforementioned bands that would be on my stranded-on-a-desert-island list of Things I Need to Survive. Call me crazy, but I don’t think The Arcade Fire deserves to be on that type of list. Yet.

That being said, to even be mentioned in the same sentence as a few of (arguably) the most influential bands of the last 25 years, is saying something. Without a doubt, there are Arcade Fire songs, notably “Wake Up” from Funeral and “Intervention” from Neon Bible, that required obsessive listening and saying, “excuse me, random person I’ve never met, Imma let you finish, but you gotta hear this awesome song.”

It’s true, I think bands should get a clean slate for each album they release; it seems a bit unfair to a band’s evolution (and most of them do evolve, even in spite of themselves or our wishes) to continually hold musicians to an earlier precedent — just because you couldn’t stop playing that first album of theirs.

So, while I haven’t immediately found The Suburbs as enthralling or iconic as their previous albums, it deserves praise for being The Arcade Fire’s most enterprising (at 16 songs) and concept-driven album to date. Unsurprisingly, The Suburbs was inspired by band members Win and William Butler’s upbringing in the suburban terraces of outer Houston. What is surprising, however, is that frontman Win Butler has said that the album is neither a panegyric nor a denunciation of the ‘burbs; instead it is, simply, “a letter from the suburbs.” Bor-ing.

Fittingly, The Suburbs‘ 64 minutes seem to be spent searching the sprawling lawns and white picket fences of a now somewhat-defunct American dream. Like parts of Neon Bible, the album utilizes a slick synthesizer-loaded sound accompanied by orchestration, and ethereal guitars to create a sometimes playful, mostly melancholy mood and sense of place that builds resolutely throughout — the kind of theatrics The Arcade Fire is known for.

Thematically, The Suburbs is about decay and disagreement, which is strikingly expressed in the harmonic exchange between Win Butler and his wife and musical partner Régine Chassagne. It seems Butler, especially, has been struggling with some enigmatic feeling of place for a long time and, today, with plenty of road between him and his youth, he’s finally able to look back to a nervy, static and probably confining life in the suburbs with some perspective. While I personally think that casting a doubtful eye on the cultural malaise of the suburbs will always hold water — at the same time, I’m not sure Butler’s musings hold enough heft to get me past the other side of the coin — which is how over-played suburban soullessness is conceptually. He may claim that the album is not an indictment, but there is much to make you believe otherwise.

Musically, The Suburbs offers much that is reminiscent of Neil Young’s treatises — along with moments when you’ll be sure you’re listening to Blondie or Depeche Mode. The album’s musical antecedents definitely offer a clear picture of the music Butler was listening to as a teenager, which is cool and all, but I’m just not totally sold on why I should care about a musical photo album of an ’80s suburban childhood — even if it is surreal and everyone’s got a funny haircut.

I would rather the band take a firm stance one way or another rather than be content with “artistic” indifference. The Arcade Fire is at its best when inspired or shouting praise. I appreciate the artistic thought process behind trying to offer a discourse on a particular issue rather than a one-sided rant, but come on. Nostalgia isn’t going to light many fires, and here it just anesthetizes.

While Butler’s own Dazed & Confused (or Revolutionary Road) may be a little tired or watery thematically (or “magical and mysterious” if you’re a music critic!), musically it is pretty fantastic. The songs are tight, masterfully produced, and, in its entirety, the album still has those flourishes of joy and transcendence that made their prior albums lasting. The Arcade Fire is as good as anyone at writing anthems — anthems that make you want to get up to march somewhere or reconsider your priorities. Anthems that are hopeful. They’re still doing that, even if it’s under different pretenses, because — as the thematic conclusion seems to imply — you can make your home anywhere.

However, I still felt like I was hearing too much sour hindsight and future dread in the lyrics, and I don’t want to hear that now. I don’t need hipster scorn anymore, not with my man Barry in the Oval Office.

More importantly, “Suburban War,” “Month of May,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are highlights worth hearing — and the latter will literally put you on a pile of cocaine in Blondie’s living room in the late ’80’s. The beat and theme sound like what MGMT would make if they were 10 years older and didn’t suck. So dig it, then, would ya?

The Suburbs gets a rating of 13.5 out of 17 possible shopping malls.

-Rip Empson

The Arcade Fire: “The Suburbs