Review Summary: The inevitable fall, the sound of a band losing its direction and personality. Altogether, a dreary, exhausting riposte to the suburban monster.
The story of Arcade Fire’s career has been one of intrinsic regression. Neon Bible
was a step back from the genre-defying modern fairytale that was Funeral
, marrying its swirling bombast with a more refined and dare I say straightforward sound. In fact straightforward is a word that has gone hand in hand with the Fire’s third opus. If only. This is an exhausting, pummelling and suffocating album that leaves you crying for respite again and again throughout its sixteen tracks and sixty-four minute duration. And that is a real sixteen tracks. There are no interludes or partial ditties to be found here, save for a reprisal of the title track at the end. The Suburbs
is trench warfare and marks a retreat from the personality and invention of Funeral and the refinement of Neon Bible
. This is Arcade Fire’s first mis-step and it’s a mighty one.
Fittingly, the title track is illustrative of the album’s failings. Its melancholic, jangling keys and bopping refrain takes the band to new heights of radio-friendliness but the song is needlessly bloated, taking an awful long time to go not very far at all. With one or two exceptions, this ‘twelve rounds with Mike Tyson’ approach is the template for what is to come, only for any melodic qualities to be kicked out the side door on the way. Caveman rockers such as ‘Empty Room’ and ‘Month of May’ show that no amount of bluster can mask what are ultimately aimless and gormless attempts to change the album’s pace. If the balls out rockers are shallow, the slower elements are plodding in equal measure, forming The Suburbs
modus operandi – a tame homage to Americana from days gone by. For the telegraphed chord changes of ‘Modern Man’ see the telegraphed chord changes of ‘City with No Children’. Set against Win Butler’s relentless chiding of the suburban monster, an album emerges that is entrenched within its repetitive subject matter. In this respect Butler has conveyed monotonous suburbia perfectly but it does not necessarily make for pleasant listening. Only on ‘Suburban War’ do they accomplish something approaching their ambition, a wistful slice of Simon and Garfunkel that has you coming back for more. It is a curious anomaly.
It is all the more curious because it is the only song that is allowed to breathe - which alludes to the quite dreadful production and The Suburbs
ultimate failing. The album feels hollow and diminishes everything that made Funeral
the low-fi explosion of the decade. You weren’t listening to a band on that album; you were listening to an orchestra, a diverse range of instruments working together in harmony with each component allowed to make its impression on the songs. The production here removes those important nuances. There are token aperitifs of strings here and there but they are lost in a sorry haze of impenetrable guitars. Even the lyrical language hopping is kept to a bare minimum, only fuelling the feeling that you are now just listening to another indie band. Worst of all, Win Butler becomes a diminished, cornered figure, enveloped by all that surrounds him. Maybe Butler is cornered, dismayed at the monster his band has become, defined by the whims of the faceless kids that jump from one bandwagon to the next. But he needs to come out fighting. Remember the Butler that cried so effusively that the power was out in the heart of man? It now seems like a distant memory. You can surmise to your heart’s content on what ground-breaking social commentary Butler is bringing to the table next, but it was his seismic energy and uninhibited passion that gave Arcade Fire the warmth and vigour that perfectly supplemented their multi-instrumentalism. This is what made them such a show-stopping band at first.
Ultimately, Arcade Fire desperately needs to rediscover their personality, and fast. With The Suburbs
they have sent out a retort to all those who sought their pound of flesh. Unfortunately they have at best succeeded in creating a pale imitation of themselves and at worst have contrived to fulfil the massive indie-shaped hole that the mainstream has opened for them. ‘I would rather be wrong than live in the shadow of your song’ croons Butler at one point. Butler is wrong and is now living in the shadow of previous triumphs. This is a band that possesses an embarrassment of riches, two original and dynamic vocalists, a range of instruments that would make opera houses weep and an ability to make songs that turn into mini-operas, conveying the intimate setting of a campfire while taking our minds to incomprehensible landscapes – a truly cross-over band. But Jesus Christ, don’t keep it hid.