Review Summary: how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
I have a confession to make: I'm one of those guys who grew up on prog-rock. I used to live off it; there'd be days spent listening to Peter Gabriel's public-school nonsense and others put to work on Yes and Close To The Edge
, a record I focused on every ounce of. Why? Because I wanted to know how it was going to end
. That's the sad thing about growing up with prog-rock, of course: it ends. Eventually you outgrow the genre and realise, among other things, that it was built on contradiction; who else but Genesis could write a concept album about medieval England and claim it the way for the future?
Arcade Fire will, of course, never make a prog-rock record. For the most part, the genre is history, or at least in its geeky '70s sense. But even though the Arcade Fire isn't comprised of British geeks, I'm certain they know some. The Suburbs
takes me back to my first musical steps with prog-rock and being pummeled over the head by musical shifts and pompous storytelling. It takes me back, most importantly, to how I'd feel like there was nothing more important than Selling England By The Pound
or Close To The Edge
or whichever record I had spinning at the time. Because Win Butler and Régine Chassagne do something just as preposterous as their pals: they act as if everything that matters is about the suburbs.
And you know what? Of all the changes in scenery those suburbs get, of all the dramatic shifts through the genres of punks, hip kids and oldies, the most interesting aspect of it all is in the simple statistics. It’s how the Arcade Fire go on this all-out, sixteen song romp in order to tell their story. It’s hard to know how to feel about that, because the greatest quality this band ever had was craftsmanship. Tragedy on Funeral
was given tremendous respect because it was neither understated nor overstated. Neon Bible
, filled to the brim though it was, boxed its themes of crisis and dealt with them with just eleven tracks. It all said what it needed to say, and no more.
But The Suburbs
says what it needs to say more than, er, it needs to. It’s a record of aphorisms to be learned by heart, such as the wholly simple and nostalgic “In the suburbs I learned to drive / and you told me we’d never survive,
” which connects from its original point in “The Suburbs” to its awkward placement in “Suburban War.” The intention is surely to put one unique idea at the heart of The Suburbs
, and the record is prog-rock in this sense because the art they have made becomes more important than the themes it contains - it’s like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
made by an ethical Genesis. At points, the musical shifts become a hassle when you consider how little Butler needs to say for us to get it. Arcade Fire are trying to channel concept through everything at once, be it the icy punk rock of “Month of May” or the immediate follow-up “Wasted Hours” which, despite its clichéd Americana, says the exact same thing as “Month of May” did, and with little of the significance. “First they built the road then they built the town / That’s why we’re still driving around and around”
he sings on both tracks, and it’s as if Butler is hitting his crowd over the head with a hammer of bloated morals and harsh life-lessons, much like Broken Social Scene, Radiohead or U2 would on their alt-rock escapades. But has Win Butler ever needed to shout his mouth off? The lyrics are good – if didactic - but overstated and poorly edited. Less is surely more.
This isn’t so much about lyrical content; it’s about the execution of it. And musically, every song on The Suburbs
is executed perfectly, with a delightful new aspect of Arcade Fire: polish. Tracks such as “City With No Children” are straightened out and constructed with that old craftsman’s attention to detail. Each song demands further listens to discover deeper subtleties, such as everything that goes on behind the curtain of guitar-dominated “Half Light I” or how quickly the band can move from one thing to another – I’ve rarely heard an album delve from something as celebratory as “Deep Blue” to something as veiled as “We Used To Wait.” And everything has this polish, be it a synth melody at the surface or, most frequently, that bittersweet violin. Music is boastful and showy on The Suburbs
and as a result the album swells up even more than its predecessor did. It's every track for itself, rather than as it is meant to be: a movement to a far more important body of music. Each track is so huge, so diverse and so piece-by-piece. It sounds this way because the band are playing to their influences more than ever, Butler himself alluding to the album as a cross between Depeche Mode and Neil Young. Of course, there’s more than that; there’s ‘70s rock in “City With No Children” and there’s electronic dance music á la The Knife in “Sprawl II.” There’s so much going on that even the seamless transfer of track-upon-track feels forced. There is nothing carrying The Suburbs
to be an album, and that’s what Win Butler wants this to be – an album
, with segments and reprises and endings. The theme is left as the only uniting force for everything that goes on song-to-song, but its insistence is also the thing that breaks it all up.
One track at a time, this record works. But in spite of all its counterparts, “Month of May” stands head and shoulders above the rest. And why? Because it makes us as uncomfortable as “Antichrist Television Blues” did and it unifies its audience as much as “Power Out” did. This is the Arcade Fire at their best because it is the Arcade Fire at their most direct. And that is what has me jumping between love and hate for The Suburbs
. This isn’t Win Butler backing off but it isn’t a confrontation either: hell, it’s a contradiction, a man of his own description, standing with his arms folded tight. For fifteen tracks of sixteen that’s who he is, but not on “Month of May.” The lyrics are cold snaps with minimum scenery and maximum impact, and out of respect for this Arcade Fire dismantle themselves and sit around an amplifier like it were a campfire. This distorted punk anthem is the group’s finest moment of 2010 for finding a way to cut through the passive aggressive world they’ve created and ask some real questions, just as they asked all-day long on Funeral
and Neon Bible
. It doesn’t use nostalgia or description as its weapon, but instead addresses the listeners, kids though we may be, with one cutting analogy: “How you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
” That brings home the only thing The Suburbs
is really trying to convey beyond every social scoff and accusation: a call for action. And while this sentiment reappears in small doses on “Suburban War” and “Sprawl II,” it never emerges as winner. Butler is urgent with his ideas, and that may well be why he has created this monolithic prog-rock record. But Like most prog-nerds, he leaves curtain call too late.