The Suburbs

C&P-ing this from Hoist the Black Flag just in case Tumblr or Hoist ever go down. My review of The Suburbs from August 5th.

Arcade Fire’s latest album is a sixteen track song cycle about suburban malaise, and this central conceit is both the record’s greatest strength and the source of its weaknesses. In a word, The Suburbs sort of sounds like the suburbs.

Funeral found the band exuberant and vital; its choral chants and kitchen-sink musical approach drew listeners into a snowed-in world of hopeful kids with no parents and no power, creating a sense of community and catharsis. Neon Bible saw them angrily engage with a flawed world; its moral outrage and tension was augmented by production that was murky, claustrophobic and overbearing.

On their third effort, Arcade Fire sound for the first time neither hopeful nor angry, but simply resigned.

The Suburbs is meticulously planned and musically restrained, filled with recurring motifs and repeated phrases that emerge slowly from a landscape that seems both familiar and endless. The title track sets the tone, a loping quasi-ragtime number that announces “I’m moving past the feeling.” While Win still sings of youthful idealism, the passions that characterized the band’s previous work are filtered through a haze of nostalgia, regret and distance. The past tense dominates The Suburbs — Win recalls memories of “the summer that I broke my arm,” staring out his window waiting for undelivered letters and reflecting on promise unfulfilled. When not looking backwards, he dreams about dreaming or about driving to Houston — but never actually does.

Arcade Fire once excoriated children who refused to wake up, but The Suburbs plays out like an extended reverie; its setting isn’t the suburban landscape of the Butlers’ youth, but the half-remembered dreamscapes of Win’s mind, where he fills in the blanks with cliché, tropes and repetition. By ‘Suburban War’, the midpoint of the album, The Suburbs folds back on itself, quoting the opening line verbatim. The subsequent tracks continue to directly lift lyrics from earlier songs, turning choruses into verses, and transforming shouted manifestos into half-time bluegrass shuffles. By the final track, they’re “still driving around and around,” looping back to the beginning with a reprise of the title track.

The music and production embrace the concept with equal success, cloaking The Suburbs in a sepia-toned haze and distancing its songs from their audience — no small feat for a group whose default setting is immediacy and shared catharsis. The record relies less on the band’s tendency to enthusiastically pile instruments atop each other until listeners succumb to the weight of bombast, and instead allows tracks to breathe. The novelty of open space on an Arcade Fire album results in songs with crescendos and broad dynamic variation that still feel strangely muted. This restraint lets the band show off a new command of texture and rhythm, playing with both to subtle effect. In place of the grandeur of Funeral and Neon Bible, these songs frequently build tension without hitting the crest of the wave, and tracks that border on stadium rock in concert are far more subdued on record. The rhythm track on ‘Modern Man’ constantly undercuts the song’s momentum by shifting accent patterns, but in doing so adds colour to an otherwise straightforward number. Similarly, the climax of ‘We Used to Wait’ is delayed until the last possible moment, after repeatedly building to choruses that dissipate at the start of each skeletal verse. It’s not until the penultimate track, ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, that a true moment of release is granted. Regine’s soft vocals float over a disco backbeat and New Wave synths, climbing to a triumphant key change and a palpable mix of joy and desperation that’s been absent in the band’s oeuvre since Funeral.

By most standards, The Suburbs is a staggering success. Measured and mature, but nonetheless musically varied and rich in texture, it’s a rewarding, cohesive, and self-contained listen. Objectively, it might be Arcade Fire’s strongest album qua album. However, compared to the warmth and passion of their previous work, the record is as isolated from its listeners as the suburbs are from the city. Early in The Suburbs, Win tells us, “In my dreams, we’re still screaming,” but at least on record, Arcade Fire no longer are. After two albums that ambitiously reached outwards, the band have retreated to make a work that is almost hermetically sealed off from the real world. In that sense, the album succeeds at what it set out to do; it strongly conveys an enveloping sense of place, time and character, but one that, for some, will be easier to appreciate than it will be to love.

– AO

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One response to “The Suburbs

  1. By complete coincidence I am playing this album for the very first time just as I found your post while surfing around playing catchup on the Web. I’m six songs in, listening to what at the start seems like the worst track thus far, “City With No Children,” the first one that really is played through a haze and achieves recessivity that may be evocative of withdrawal but not of anything else. But I’ve liked at least something about every other track (and even here there are moments where the voices are calling across “City”‘s self-created recessiveness), though no one’s going to convince me that these songs couldn’t be better with a better singer. “Modern Man,” three tracks back, held great promise because its guitar strums have the same clipped tension as the guitar on Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” even if, as you say, Arcade Fire took a scissors to the rhythm. So: good that it’s “Jessie’s Girl,” but bad that it’s not actually “Jessie’s Girl.” I wish I could have “Jessie Girl” instead. The voice isn’t even trying to hold its own against the great strumming. And the whole song loses itself in diffusion by the end. (Next track, “Rococco,” starts with a lot less and ends up much better, as strings or synths or synchronized guitars (I can’t tell the difference) overwhelm the singing and its poor happy smile of a gargle.)

    Not paying any attention to the words yet.

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