Review Summary: Both timeless and contemporary, urgent and meditative, The Suburbs is an important step for a band who could have fallen out of touch.
There’s something about that final triumphant violin melody in “Rebelion (Lies),” off Arcade Fire’s debut LP Funeral
, that makes it sound instantly nostalgic and timeless. It’s like it’s some melody that you heard when you were a child that you are now finally rediscovering. Funeral
is full of melodies like that. The group has a way of writing songs that can somehow sound like classics, melodies hummed and repeated by music listeners for centuries.
On The Suburbs
, the band wanders back from the ambitious diversity and dynamic experimentation of Neon Bible
to the more traditional structure and approach of Funeral
. More than ever before, Arcade Fire sounds like a compact, tight band. Even more noticeable is Win Butler’s assumption of the role as ‘the frontman.’ The Springsteen comparisons, rooted in tracks like “Keep The Car Running,” are even more apparent on The Suburbs
. I swear to god when Butler sings, “dreamt I drove home to Houston” on “City With No Children,” it sounds exactly like Springsteen, the lyrics even drawing on the same Americana roots found on Born In The USA
(ironically, they’re Canadian). Though the symphonic violins and pianos are still found throughout the album, exaggerating each songs’ melancholy melodies, the focus is more on the traditional guitar, bass, and drums set up. Take the end of “Modern Man,” where dual guitars blend and harmonize to make a riff that Broken Social Scene would be jealous of, or “Month Of May,” an unashamed, energetic punk rallying call that prepares us for the record’s breathtaking final stretch.
And despite the band’s knack for writing timeless songs that recall somber memories of some lost decade, on The Suburbs
, they still manage to sound so contemporary. Whether it’s the piano-driven saloon rock of the title track, which calls to mind bands like The Good Life or Okkervil River, or the heavy folk thump of “Wasted Hours, which screams Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire imitates and draws upon the music of their peers in a way that is distinctly theirs.
Some of the criticism about The Suburbs
concerns its lyrical content. Butler ponders questions of mortality, innocence, love and loss within the context of homogeneous American suburb. We enter the emotional wasteland of the sprawl. It was the dark lyrics and generally darker feel of Neon Bible
that turned off many fans to the bands second album. The Suburbs
is more true to Funeral
. Yes, the music is often dark but there are those beautiful, uplifting melodies, like the ones in “Suburban War” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," that make the album more bearable and fluid.
To me, a more valid criticism is one that examines Butler’s vocal delivery. Although his lyrics and melodies are still superb, the intensity that he once exhibited on Funeral
is nearly absent. The yelps and pained screams of songs like “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)” or Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” are gone. Only “Ready To Start” and “Rococo” have an intensity that warrants comparison to his earlier vocal performances. The latter is the album’s finest track. The drums beat out a heavy solider march while violins swell and the guitars explode into perhaps the heaviest progression in the band’s repetoire.
“2009, 2010, wanna make a record like I felt then.” Normally, I would cringe at such a self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking lyric. But when Win Butler shouts it on the cathartic standout “Month of May” over pounding, blaring guitars, I not only enjoy it but also want to commend Butler for his achievement in doing so. I don’t think The Suburbs
fully embodies everything we felt in 2009 and 2010. But its themes of emotional sprawl, uniformity and soul searching, are nevertheless instantly relatable and perhaps more connected to our overall situation than we think. But The Suburbs
comes at a time in the band’s career when it was incredibly important to show that they were in touch (or as Carles would put it, “still relevant”). The album’s contemporary influence pairs well with the band’s general timelessness to create an album that is relatable, powerful and successfully ambitious. The Suburbs
is a solidification of the band’s importance and a celebration of their unique and beautiful style.