Review Summary: Although at times it loses itself, The Suburbs is an immersive and rewarding experience
I’d taken my time with writing my review for The Suburbs
for two reasons, firstly, because I wanted to choose my words carefully about a personally significant album with a release date that had long been in my diary, and secondly, down to practicality more than anything, because the thing itself is vast.
I’ve tried to avoid other music publications’ takes on this album, but from what I have seen very few have resisted the temptation to mention Bruce Springsteen in their write ups, and who am I to break ranks? The Boss does indeed feature prominently on this record, if not in style then in spirit, which works both to its benefit and detriment. However, the allusions to Springsteen are not as overt as they were on this album’s predecessor Neon Bible
, see ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’, but are subtler and more absorbed into Arcade Fire’s own distinctive sound. The theme, concept, whatever it may be is a simple one, it’s the title, the suburbs themselves, and parallels can most certainly be drawn between Arcade Fire’s view of the suburbs, perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an inane life, and Springsteen’s own maxims on rising up from the doldrums.
Arcade Fire have never been a band to do things by halves and The Suburbs
is no exception; it is a sprawling epic on a biblical scale. An expansive sound is the life-blood of this album, a necessity perhaps for an album with an unwavering focus on escapism. It begins in a deceptively breezy fashion, with the stunning titular track. The piano and guitar are jangly but the lyrics lamenting and wistful, and we’re introduced to the themes that continue to fuel the hymnal melancholy; despair, longing and resolve.
‘Ready to Start’ shares these sentiments, with vocalist Win Butler begrudging of his stifled new life and crushed dreams: “Business men drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would.” ‘Modern Man’ is concerned with the repetition and tediousness of the white-collar suburbanite’s world with Butler proclaiming “Like a record that’s skipping / I’m a modern man / And the clock keeps ticking.” The band’s use of vocabulary is flawless, perfectly encapsulating the banality of suburban life they wish to emphasise and the futility of efforts to strive for more.
But despite the pitch-perfect imagery and the album being seamless in style and continuity, there are musical issues that are probably a consequence of their intense focus on this preoccupation. Further in to this sixteen-track exploration the momentum begins to lag and the expansive sound that was once so engulfing becomes muddy. The album loses its way down a suburban cul-de-sac, disorientated within its own labyrinthine blueprint. Songs such as ‘Half Light II (No Celebration)’, ‘Wasted Hours’ and ‘Deep Blue’ seem relevant only on a narrative level, existing to provide more time for the band to unravel their residential tales and that alone, such is their lack of musical punch and melody. In fact, the album has only achieved its limitless sound through the sacrifice of melody, which can only be a shame for a band that on previous efforts captured feelings of pure joy with their soaring motifs and infectiously good hooks. As admirable as their pursuit of an epic, surburban-esque sound is, they might have pursued it too far and on one too many an occasion I dare say it sounds a little contrived.
It may be a little boorish to try to compare a work such as The Suburbs
to its predecessors when it clearly strives to be a standalone and monolithic work in its own right, but when Funeral
and Neon Bible
were so good (the latter severely underrated) it’s difficult not to. On Funeral
, an Arcade Fire free of preconceptions dabbled in sadness and joy in equal measure. The spontaneous ecstasy of the album was surely its charm, with no conceivable attempt to hone a particular sound, only a will to write great music. They told us that loss was terrible, but eventually things would turn out right, whilst in Neon Bible
they instead brilliantly told us that the world is in fact as *** as we thought it was. The brooding claustrophobia of Neon Bible
was masterful in its tacit and universal applicability, and had an epic sound all of its own. Further embracing of a Springsteenian all-American sound on show here just seems unnecessary and serves to dilute the band’s strongest qualities.
Despite the ill-advised introductions into the band’s sound, the album finds itself at the death, with the two ‘Sprawl’ tracks, the latter a fantastic 80s synth throwback, and ending with the haunting reprise of ‘The Suburbs (Continued)’ which helps contextualise everything the band were trying to say over the course of the preceding hour. The band’s message and ambition is clear and the album stands as a meticulous and revelatory work. Despite missing the precision of their previous two albums it is still a stellar release and must surely be among the contenders for the best album of the year so far. It has helped reaffirm Arcade Fire as the band to which all other bands should aspire to beat, and on this form, they look likely to be on top for a good while yet.
Written for www.nightbus.tumblr.com