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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs


ARCADE FIRE: THE SUBURBS (2010)

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; 9) Suburban War; 10) Month Of May; 11) Wasted Hours; 12) Deep Blue; 13) We Used To Wait; 14) Sprawl (Flatland); 15) Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains); 16) The Suburbs (continued).

Arcade Fire's third album seems to have confused the world even more than Neon Bible. Too many people probably expected them to learn their lesson, rebound from the alleged «sophomore slump», and deli­ver another fine barrel of catharsis. Now The Suburbs could be called many things, good or bad, but one thing it does not do is overwhelm emotionally — at least, not imme­diately. And with the stakes raised so high, what is there to do? Most of the «official» reviews have been positive, because no self-respecting critic likes to come across as a dumbass, writing about the same band as saviours of the world one day and as pathetic losers the next. Many, if not most, of the unofficial ones have been honestly hateful.

Perhaps the saddest thing about The Suburbs is this: Arcade Fire's third record leaves little, if any doubt, as to the fact that this band will never ever top Funeral as its finest hour, and, on an even sadder scale, confirms my deep-running suspicion that no band or artist of today has it in them to lay more than one definitive masterpiece — with everything else essentially being «just for the fans». The Suburbs is not a bad album by any means, nor does it show any significant de­terioration of the band's enthusiasm, but neither is there any discernible progress. Mostly they are running on the spot, and it does not help matters much that they do this over a running length of sixteen tracks and sixty three minutes, either.

Let us begin with the fact that this is a record about... the suburbs. Not exactly the least untapped subject in the world of American art. Not exactly the least untapped subject in the world of Ar­cade Fire, either: suburbs and neighbourhoods belong together, don't they? It is not bad that they decided to move away from the globalistic-apocalyptic ambitions of Neon Bible; it is not too go­od, though, that they decided to retread back to the trodden paths of Funeral in order to stretch wide and dig deep that which has already been stretched and dug quite sufficiently.

Of course, this particular weakness is easy to override. Want it or not, lyrics and concepts in rock albums generally exist so as to facilitate the job of the critic, who is supposed to entertain his rea­ders with pseudo-philological and mock-philosophical babble rather than dry descriptions of sca­les, modulations, and tonalities. Burn the CD booklet, unlearn the English language and forget the Latin alphabet, and you will never ever know that Butler and Chassagne's songs are somehow supposed to deal with memories of their suburban lives and reflections on how different those lives are from those of suburban kids today. I have not been able to perform any of these three tasks, yet even so I fail to see a deep connection between the words and the music. I am certainly no expert on the suburbs of Texas, but my intuition quite suggestively tells me that The Suburbs is as much a proper reflection of that life as a hip-hop musical would be reflective of the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.

So let 'em. It may be about the suburbs, or it may be about twelfth century alchemists, or about the secret lives of black beetles — my focus is on the music rather than on homebrewn philoso­phy. And the music, unfortunately, prolongs and, sometimes, even exacerbates the problems al­ready evident on Neon Bible.

First, there is the issue of monotonousness: this whole friggin' thing sounds mostly the same. Not only that, it makes little use of the band members' individual talents. I had to doublecheck, for instance, whether Sarah Neufeld is still an official member: her violin, so essential to the sound of Funeral, is pretty much drowned out for good on most of the songs. Guitars have been compres­sed and reduced to one- or two-note drones, or, at best, echoey substitutes for white noise in the background. And even so, with individualities spliced together in one monolith, the album still does not have even one truly collective, boundary-shattering anthem à la 'Wake Up'. At times, it all feels like a huge army of clones, blindly following general Butler's directions.

Second, I join the angry chorus of those who insist that the whole thing is just way too drawn out. All of us will have our own choices of which songs are winners and losers, but most of us will probably agree that at least four or five tracks should have been left on the cutting floor (for the record, my immediate choices for the shitter are 'City With No Children', 'Suburban War', 'Was­ted Hours' — indeed! — and maybe one or two other tracks from the way too saggy middle). God had his reasons, you see, for deeming fourty — fourty-five minutes as the ideal running length of an album, and if Arcade Fire are God's chosen ones indeed, what's up with forgetting His cove­nant? Who are they aiming at — Michael Jackson?

If there is one thing that still saves The Suburbs and still shows that Funeral was not an acciden­tal fluke, it is that Arcade Fire still understand the devastating power of the simple vocal and instrumental hook. About half of these songs, when all the nasty words have been spoken, are still great pop music, and they are still capable of reminding us how so much can be done with so little — and then, how it takes so much to make you believe in the power of so little. For instance, the title track, opening the album — first time around — with no build-up at all, but launching direct­ly into battle, would have never worked without its trivial honky tonk piano riff, but it also takes all the Cure/U2-precision-level arrangements of keyboards, strings, and haunting vocals in the background to make that honky tonk piano riff work.

The arrangements may be devoid of individuality, but on the best songs their components are still perfectly integrated together; the simple vocal hooks of 'Ready To Start' and 'We Used To Wait' would probably have never worked without all the electronic and analog backing. (On the other hand, 'Empty Room', with Chassagne's vocals brought closer to the forefront, seems to work bet­ter live than in its overproduced studio arrangement). And it still puzzles me why the final grand scale number, 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)', works as well as it does, despite being all rooted in a simplistic, repetitive synth-pop riff that could have come off some Kylie Minogue album, for all I know; most likely, due to Regine's ongoing charm — she still sings the same way as usual, as if she'd just learned the basic technique the previous evening, always on the verge of breaking down but always careful enough not to take that treacherous last step.

If there is one totally unusual song on the album, it must be 'Rococo', eerie and creepy in its total absurdism: to mix together mantra-style chanting of the word 'rococo' (yeah, I like the way it sounds, too) with music that has nothing to do with rococo and lyrics that have even less to do with it is something somebody must have dreamt in a nightmare, and that's the exact feeling I get. It may warm my heart to hear the lyrics mercilessly lambasting the kids of today ("they seem wild but they are so tame, they're moving towards you with their colors all the same" — that's right, have at 'em, Will!), but, again, the music itself is much weirder than that, a slow whirlwind of strings, keyboards, and howls the exact likes of which I never heard before, as if the Cure, Coc­teau Twins, and Radiohead all joined forces on that one.

One thing is for sure: The Suburbs, like all other Arcade Fire albums, not only stands up to, but definitely requires repeated listens. Do not try it out if you are one of the few unlucky souls that remained untouched by the gruff majesty of Funeral; do not expect to be upgraded to Level 3 with a solid bonus if your soul has been lucky, either; try not to think of it in terms of «how seri­ously they carry on with their world-saving mission» — and your reward will arrive soon enough. Even though I do realize that for many people this reward will be nothing compared with the bit­ter disillusionment: what do you know, Arcade Fire are actually human beings, not infallible dei­ties descended into human forms in our desperate hour of need. Still, painful as it may be, thumbs up, gentlemen — there's something to be said for imperfection. At least they've dropped most of the Springsteenisms of the last album.


Check "The Suburbs" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Suburbs" (MP3) on Amazon

14 comments:

  1. "Many, if not most, of the unofficial ones have been honestly hateful."

    That line surprised me. When the album came out, I sometimes typed in Arcade Fire on Twitter, and there was an overwhelming, like more than 90 % assumption that it was brillant.

    I'm also surprised by your review itself. I do miss the full-force emotional attack, the overwhelming power of No Cars Go, the energy of Rebellion. But monotonous? Sounding the same? It's actually far more diverse than either Funeral or Neon Bible. Did you skip Suburban War before the final part - there's no other explanation for calling it a filler.

    I thought this album was actually proof that bands CAN release more than one masterpiece. All three albums are different - and I can see how that may be a problem for some. But I just don't get how Funeral is supposed to stand head and shoulders above this record. And, by all means, the number of people who are severely disappointed by The Suburbs is very small - you'd easily find that out if you searched around a bit.

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  2. I don't know about Twitter, but the general response on RateYourMusic, which I usually use as a pretty good indicator of world-wide popular opinion, has certainly been cold; for each glowing review there are at least two accusations of mediocrity, if not worse. Maybe not icy cold, but the discrepancy between critical and popular acclaim is a reality here, unlike it has been with Funeral.

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  3. "but one thing it does not do is overwhelm emotionally"

    Indeed - this is what I would have said myself. Funeral worked for me. Neon Bible intrigued me to put it on again.

    The Suburbs just didn't do anything for me - no positive reaction, no negative reaction, just listened to and forgotten afterward.

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  4. The weird thing is, I never even thought that Win was particuarly good at crafting hooks. Sure, some songs occasionally had them, but in general, i felt like they have always relied on their arrangements to carry the music. Strip Wake Up of its hugeness and the group vox, and you basically have a bland, boring song based on do-wop chords. With its arrangement, though, the passion is there, and the "woah-oh-oh's" are cathartic.

    The Suburbs is really unmemorable. Only the first and last couple of songs really stick out to me. The title track is definitely a highlight, albeit a slightly over long one. It stands out because it actually does have a pretty effective hook in the "sometime's i can't believe it..." section. Ready To Start and Modern Man rely more on the vibe and arrangements to work, but they are among the better tracks on the album, i feel.

    City With No Children is the first of a couple of songs I'd say are actually -awful-. From the horribly pedestrian riff, and the second-rate Springsteen posturings of the lyrics, it really makes it clear how simplistic and average their songs can be when they're not using the hugeness of their arrangements for immediacy.

    Month of May is a failed attempt to rock out, which oddly reminds me a lot of The Waterboys attempts to do the same on -This is the Sea-. Actually, I think a lot of comparisons can be made between the Arcade Fire and The Waterboys. They both follow the formula of "lightweight hook + huge cathartic arrangement + a healthy dose of emotion."

    Anyway, the majority of the album suffers from a huge lack of memorability and bad sequencing. The Half-Light sequence begins with a "pretty" opening section, but I feel like they only bothered to right half a decent melody. The second part is just a boring but not bad U2 impression.

    Everything else from that point on is subdued and uninteresting, although not offensive, and its not until the Sprawl II that the album reclaims my interest. It is charming and catchy, even if it owes a lot to Heart of Glass by Blondie.

    I'm left not really knowing how I feel. The album isn't bad, just OK. At the same time I feel embarrassed for Win for trying so hard to craft a 'generation-defining album,' I also feel kind of disappointed that he hasn't. Maybe because its I'm young and I wish there was someone who could speak to the apathy and directionless of my generation, one indoctrinated into a popular culture so steeped in meaningless irony that sincerity is embarrassing. I wish my generation had someone that we could mythologize and make a hero, the same way kids and the media did to Kurt Cobain twenty years ago. And I'm aware that there is something very naive but sinister about that wish, but that doesn't change the fact that The Suburbs is a disappointment to me because it wasn't the album that finally made us care.

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  5. Hm. You're right about rateyourmusic.com, although it's still the 6th-best rated album of 2010 on there. They also dominate the song charts on lastfm.com.

    It's selling really well, though that may not be much of an indicator as to how people like it. I just don't feel that there's a very negative reaction across the board.

    I think that the individual songs, and hooks, on The Suburbs are actually better than, on average I mean, the first two albums. The arrangements are different. but that's a very deliberate choice and doesn't necessarily mean the next album would also sound like that.

    I was prepared for a disappointment the moment I heard this would be much more subdued and smaller in arrangement than Neon Bible, but it turned out to be really good.

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  6. Hey George. Long time reader, first time writer. Well, that's not entirely true - I've written you a couple of emails. Anyways, not the point.

    I was waiting to hear what you thought about their latest album. I like it a bit better than you, I think. I like it better than Neon Bible, for one. I think it hangs together as a whole quite well, regardless of individual songs, although it does have its problems. "City With No Children" is indeed terrible, and the stretch near the end starting with "Wasted Hours" and ending with "Sprawl I" (leaving out "We Used To Wait", which is slightly better) is pretty damn boring.

    However, I also have to agree with the sentiments of Mr. Anonymous up there.

    "At the same time I feel embarrassed for Win for trying so hard to craft a 'generation-defining album,' I also feel kind of disappointed that he hasn't. Maybe because its I'm young and I wish there was someone who could speak to the apathy and directionless of my generation, one indoctrinated into a popular culture so steeped in meaningless irony that sincerity is embarrassing. I wish my generation had someone that we could mythologize and make a hero, the same way kids and the media did to Kurt Cobain twenty years ago."

    It is disappointing. Win Butler - no, Arcade Fire - had it in their grasp to undo some of the damage done by that last cultural revolution. I love Kurt Cobain as much as the next guy, but he helped create (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) that far-reaching and disastrous air of apathy that plagued the last generation, and still plagues my own. That naive, idealistic side of me was hoping that maybe, just maybe, a spark would be lit by Arcade Fire - a group of people not so far from my age who actually do care about things, with no irony or sarcasm or anti-message as far as the eye can see - and that perhaps some of the malaise would be lifted. Now, I'm not naive enough to let the obvious problems with such a sentiment go unnoticed. We should not be looking for a Messiah to galvanize us, or put our trust in a rock star to save our generation from its sins. But if the self-obsessed and slacker driven culture could be infused into culture by a musical movement, why couldn't the opposite happen?

    It's ironic to me that their most anthemic and earth-shattering album is also their most personal. Who knows what could've happened had the subject matter of Funeral been swapped with Neon Bible or The Suburbs. Would there have been a cultural revolution, however minor, that could've undone some of the damage? Does it matter to even ponder such a thing? Or, as Bob Dylan has told us time and again, is trusting a musician with such things a foolhardy and worthless endeavor? Perhaps all of the above are true to some extent.

    Wow, that was way longer than I expected it to be. Thanks to anybody who bothered to read that wall of text.

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  7. A whole bunch of my friends were all like "Dude this is the best album ever!!!"
    and I was like "It's way too long and all the songs sound the same."
    Them - "You just got to let it sink in man. Listen to it one hundred times and then come back and tell me that"
    me - "If I wanted to fall asleep I'd take a nap. there are many better ways to spend my life then listening to a mediocre Arcade Fire album"
    them - "Duuuuude, you're like soooo wrong maaan."
    me - "Duuuuude, you're so in denial. Your old favorite band is not infallible. get over it and send a worthwhile indie album to the top of the charts instead."

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  8. I'm just glad they can make nice pop hooks again, Neon Bible was a mediocre hookless wonder that everyone loved for some reason.

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  9. So Butler turned out not to be a populist.

    Good! We don't need another Springsteen in the world (or Tragically Hip here in Canada).

    THE SUBURBS doesn't improve on the debut album, but it does correct the mistakes of NEON BIBLE (not that the latter is a bad album, per se). Particular highlights: "Ready to Start", "Deep Blue" and the infectious little title track.

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  10. I don't think it's any worse than the two previous. With the repeated listens I like it more and more. Definitely the Album of the Year for me. Thank you, George, for a wonderful site

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  11. I like this album, particularly "The Sprawl II" for some reason. You nail my feelings on that one perfectly.

    That being said this Dean Ween interview with the National Post where he touches on current musical trends I can kind of relate to the Arcade Fire.

    He says,
    “We’ve been doing festival gigs all summer and the music just sucks so bad,” Melchiondo says. “It completely blows my mind just how spineless the music is where there’ll be 115 bands on four stages and there’s not one f--king guy up there playing a guitar solo with distortion.”

    and...
    “There are some people you can tell have a good sense of humour and they would be a lot of fun to hang with. To me, The Beatles are really funny,” Melchiondo says. “And Prince is probably the funniest f--king guy in the whole world. He changes his name to unpronounceable symbols and people get all caught up in it -- he’s probably laughing his ass off about it! … But I’m not so sure that Robert Fripp has any humour at all. That would be the last person I’d ever wanna f--king hang with.”

    Read more: http://www.nationalpost.com/Ween+band+that+doesn+suck/3333531/story.html#ixzz19wxHzTTL

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  12. This is the first time I've checked on your thoughts of this album. I do agree, it is a bit of a letdown if the expectation was to match their first album, but I still think there is a ton to love in the record. I laughed when I saw that two of your least favorite tracks were my two favorites: CITY WITH NO CHILDREN and SUBURBAN WAR, with the opener and MODERN MAN being right there. I think CITY is such a simple, unique groove that I think you might be putting it down too much for simplicity sake, especially since it is only three minutes, and I think the melody and wonderfully baseline of SUBURBAN WAR are very strong, and evoke the wonderful tempo-changing of their first record. I recommend giving those songs another try.

    -STEFAN

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  13. When I've heard this record for the first three or four times I simply hated it, with that long tracklist and some boring moments in the middle.

    Then, I identified the moments I don't like the most and started to skip some songs, getting an album of nearly 45-48 minutes. And it was so much better!

    In the end, to me The Suburbs could be an incredible record if I don't have to skip some middle tracks, because the good songs are really good.

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  14. I love The Suburbs. I don't know why it works so well but it does. Also, I agree that Neon Bible wasn't that great. I've never been able to get into that album at all. Funeral is a good album but overrated.

    This is their masterpiece. I love it more than I like Arcade Fire. In fact, I predict that they only have a record or two left in them. (barring a dramatic stylistic change)

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