Review Summary: Being trapped in the suburbs isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Arcade Fire were the kids isolated to the corner of the room at school: they were verbally assaulted, often bullied, designated last place in the school social-hierarchy, but most importantly, they were misunderstood. In their social absence, they were able to focus their own unique idiosyncrasies, and implement them into a very special investment: Arcade Fire. The release of the critically acclaimed ‘Funeral’ immediately propelled them toward the music spotlight. The music geeks caught the attention of prolific artists like ‘U2’, and it wasn’t long until the legend himself, David Bowie, was performing vocal duties for a band he himself had influenced. Had the band peaked too early? Was there anywhere else to go? Or was it time face a cold reality, and crumble under the huge fan- pressure? The answer is a resounding no to all of the above.
Whereas ‘Neon Bible’ was the bands attempt at the grandiose – with the heavy focus on the grand piano and the church organ – ‘Suburbs’ is the bands mastery of the MTV generation – the preference toward the synths and the keyboard as the prominent components help illustrate a world fixed in the eighties. This stimulus allows the band to capture and recreate the sounds, and the very essence, of what it meant to live during those times – the album feels like a flashback from the perspective of our stargazing protagonists.
Part filmic quality, and part homage to the eighties – the title track is an amalgamation of the classic saloon scene in a western, and the repressive prison encapsulated as the Suburbs. It’s not very often that I have to decipher a songs personality amongst hidden subtext, but the songs duality is a joy to analyse. As usual, the lyrics are sharp and accurately observed without resorting to melodrama and emo sensibilities – Arcade Fire are too clever for that. The band acknowledges the pains of growing up, and their urgency to leave behind some kind of happiness to their offspring, before it is too late, is a true, grim acceptance amongst society today. The song may not be as exciting, or as unhinged as ‘Neighbourhoods #1,’ but they succeed in painting a picture of the repressed, hidden amongst the visual beauty of the suburbs.
It is perfectly natural for artists to subtly serenade their icons within their own music, but rarely do artists shout it out loud like ‘Arcade fire.’ Track 3, ‘Modern Man,’ could’ve been a Bruce Springsteen track: The lyrics depict a particular demographic, albeit an unorthodox demographic, and the hardships that come with the title, Vintage simplistic chord progression and a downbeat melancholy disguised by a proclamation of status. The modern man and the working man share a lot in common; they both have dreams that seem unlikely to ever come true.
Track 4 marks a change in style for the album, but the influences keep coming. ‘Rococo’ introduces strings and choral harmonies into the equation - only exemplifying the groups growing dynamic range. The song focuses on an ignorant notion adopted by the ‘modern kids,’ and how the word is used out of context. I’ve never heard a more beautiful song, with ethereal backing vocals, that covers a misplaced definition about French architecture and design – ignorance really is bliss. The song feels shorter than it actually is, but it does offer a fresh break from the deceivingly safe rock songs preceding it. The combination of Native American chanting, and the ‘Rococo’ chants create the perfect juxtaposition of absolute gibberish – a witty masterpiece.
Arcade Fire wears their influences on their sleeve throughout the album. ‘Empty House’s duet between Win Butler and Regine Chassagne closely resembles the fiery duets in any ‘Meatloaf’ record, while ‘Half Light 2’s implementation of synthesisers and keyboards is not dissimilar from Bowie’s efforts in the 80’s. The sustained notes help replicate that feeling of escaping the mundane, while still firmly establishing the albums contextual setting. ‘The sprawl 2’ is Arcade Fire’s attempt at recreating ‘Blondie’s sound, there’s even an ‘Elvis’ vibe within ‘Month of May’. This homage approach would’ve been seen as overkill on any other album, but the concept prevents it from looking contrived. Don’t worry - it’s ok to love your influences too much.
Arcade Fire show their commitment to the concept until the very end, but unfortunately the album sticks too close to their established tainted nostalgia – the albums portrayal of a bleak beginning is taken too seriously. During tracks 11-13, the band dwell too heavily on their characters disillusionment as the album almost comes to a grinding halt. These tracks would’ve sounded more suitable as B-sides. The perfect transition between different styles is the albums main strength, its unpredictable adoption of influences and style keeps the listeners on their toes, but the surprising lack of imagination isn’t really a nice surprise at all. Luckily the album gets back-on-track.
‘The sprawl 2’ is Butler and co’s most accomplished work since ‘Neighborhood#1’. It’s always refreshing to hear Regine Chassagne’s vocals, and it’s even more intriguing when she’s given the spotlight. As I’ve said before – and hopefully others agree – her vocal talents closely resembles that of Deborah Harry from ‘Blondie’. There’s a small sweet side to the little Canadians voice, a vulnerability, but there is also a fierce determination that can be heard in the last chorus. The intertwining keyboard/synthesiser sections progress gradually until the climactic final chorus. The song is a disco treat, and even I dance to it (I don’t normally dance). It’s the perfect reminder that we’re stuck in this warped time bubble - that is until ‘Suburbs cont’ romantically plays us out.
With so many influences, it begs the question as to whether ‘Arcade Fire’ are present at all. The band is so busy with their nostalgic vision that, maybe, they’ve forgotten to add their own personal input into the mix – or maybe this is the albums primary strength? Arcade fire have ambitiously constructed a musical/filmic universe, which, although partially flawed, comes across as work from a band who aren’t content with just releasing half-arsed material. The masters have a vision and a verisimilitude to uphold, and so by the time we get to ‘suburbs cont’, it is only fitting that the song adopts another genre of film to synchronise with the multiple musical genres on show. Personally this is my favourite Arcade Fire album. It leaves me excited, but it also leaves me nervous – how can a band top this? Only time will tell.