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.
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