Review Summary: Win Butler’s open letter to the white suburban kid works like a baseball bat to the head, a relentlessly honest manifesto backed by relentlessly crafty pop music.Funeral
, Arcade Fire’s debut album, makes a strong case for being the most important indie album of the past decade. Not only did it win over an entire subculture, it also established an entire subgenre of indie music. Call Sufjan Stevens the forebear of the modern resurgence of baroque pop all you want, but Funeral
came one year before Illinois
(no one cared about Michigan
until after the fact), and Funeral
is a better album than either of Sufjan’s albums anyway. Arcade Fire created a wave of inspiration they surely never anticipated and raised expectations for further releases to unattainable heights, which is why Neon Bible
probably seemed like a kick in the face to many of their eager, supposedly loyal fans. Despite general commercial and critical acclaim (or perhaps because of it), the music blogosphere, much larger and feistier than Arcade Fire may have remembered it in 2004, backlashed. The community that Funeral
united gathered once again, picked up pitchforks (pun intended) and charged. The Suburbs
is, essentially, frontman Win Butler’s defense mechanism.
On The Suburbs
, Butler’s lyrical attacks on his deserters are direct bludgeons, best summarized in the verses of “Rococo”, where by verse he breaks down the progression of Arcade Fire’s fanbase. First, Butler insults their intelligence for even enjoying Funeral
: “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using big words that they don’t understand.” Second, he bemoans their belittling tactics after Neon Bible
: “They build it up just to burn it back down/The wind is blowing the ashes all around/Oh my dear God what is that horrible song?” Finally, he attempts to show these hipster bastards what they really are, which is essentially what The Suburbs
does: “They seem wild but they are so tame/They're moving towards you with their colors all the same/They want to own you but they don't know what game they're playing.” In the end, Butler should come off as the proverbial cranky old man screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. But god damn, The Suburbs
is a prize-winning, finely tuned botanical garden, and Butler has every right to say whatever he pleases to his trespassers.
The music on The Suburbs
is as direct and straightforward as Butler’s lyrics. While Neon Bible
also employed this style of songwriting, The Suburbs
feels matured and spacious in all the places where Neon Bible
seemed tepid and tentative. “Empty Room” begins like the opening of an exciting overture, only to expand into an upbeat rock song driven not only by a pulsating backbeat but also by rapid violin arpeggios, kept in check by Butler and wife Régine Chassagne’s airy, inspired duet. Similarly, while the standard song structure and harmonic cadences keep the song grounded, the sound of Arcade Fire firing on all cylinders in this environment bridges the gaping hole between Funeral
and Neon Bible
. B-side of the title track single, “Month of May”, keeps the song stripped down to a standard rock song instead of embellishing the standard structures with symphonic stylings. To complement the musical style, Butler and Chassagne trade their beautifully harmonized vocals for angular shouts. This attention to atmospheric detail, matched with the lyrical content, makes The Suburbs
a well-executed, straightforward rock album instead of a banal sellout.
Still, the album contains nuances inside its simple structure. “Modern Man” subtly alternates between phrases of nine and phrases of eight in its verses, enough to make the over-analytical music critic squee with delight. The alternation is just one example of the intricate phrasing structures Arcade Fire puts into many of their songs, including “We Used to Wait” and “Suburban War”, that keep the engaged listener on his or her toes and playfully avoid boring songwriting. Equally deft, Butler’s vocal melodies weave through these rhythmic eccentricities easily, giving the songs the air of control so desperately needed for a successful pop song (for the uncomfortable flipside, see Maya
Where the album falters is in its bloated weight. The sixty-four minute album is a bit much, and one has to wonder whether “Wasted Hours” might have served better on their inevitable B-sides collection, or if the build from “Half Light I” into its second section could have been condensed and still had the same resplendent effect. Still, the best moments of the album--“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “Suburban War”, “Empty Room”--demonstrate that Arcade Fire still have some of that magic encapsulated so perfectly in Funeral
, and they may just enchant the entire indie music world once more. If only more people would get off Win Butler's lawn.