Review - The Suburbs
Written and Performed by Arcade Fire
Produced by Arcade Fire and Markus Dravs
Recorded under Merge Records
Note to self: Thursday evening does not qualify as "early next week." Daniel, you lazy ass.
So, yes, over two weeks after its release I am finally reviewing Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. My reason for delaying this long is, in my opinion, far more valid than the one I have for this week's procrastination: I had to let this album become ingrained in my head. One usually has to listen to an album two or three times before the songs come into their own and stand apart from one another. This is no different for me and my two week delay allowed The Suburbs to ferment, so to speak.
Arcade Fire's freshman and sophomore albums are so thematically opposed it's kind of amusing: Funeral was jubilant in the face of death; Neon Bible dealt with dread, paranoia and fear in uncertain times. And yet the two records seem like twins, albeit of the fraternal variety, when compared to The Suburbs. It's much in the same way that 1 and 1,000,000 find kinship in the face of infinity. I won't say the transition from Neon Bible to The Suburbs is as jarring from Radiohead's OK Computer to Kid A, but it's definitely close.
Start to finish, The Suburbs is the work of a mature musical group. The band is tighter than ever, their arrangements are harmonically ideal and the songs themselves are easily some of Arcade Fire's best. Starting on a whimsical if melancholy note with the title track, the album offers an examination of nostalgia and stagnation, conformity and self-discovery, etc. These topics have been covered by hundreds upon thousands of bands but Arcade Fire approaches them without irony or bitterness--though there is an exception to the latter in "Rococo," the fourth track that's decidedly critical of hipsters ("using great big words that they don't understand"). But for the most part, they're so nostalgic as to forget the downs of their earlier years, nor are they too cynical to ignore the good times that were had.
Sonically speaking, the band experiments with a variety of sounds throughout the record's 16-track duration, and pulls it off in the same way that the Beatles could go from surf rock to blues to acid rock to avant garde delights in the course of a double LP (I'm looking at you, White Album). Following the piano- and falsetto-driven title track, the band includes the respectively Joy Division- and David Byrne-inspired "Ready to Start" and "Modern Man." The second half of "Half Light" draws upon the late-70s Bowie sound that I love so much, "Month of May" is a straight-up garage punk tune and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is flat out disco.
On that note, Arcade Fire played around with disco rhythms, if not necessarily instrumentation, with songs like "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and the final few minutes of "Crown of Love," but I was maybe a little ignorant to think that these tracks benefitted without the electric sound typical of conventional disco. "Sprawl II," the unmistakeable climax of the record, showcases Régine's endearing singing, pounding bass and a catchy keyboard repetition that pays tribute to Blondie's "Heart of Glass." It maybe isn't my favourite song on the album but definitely its most intriguing and a fitting, joyous act of catharsis.
By far, the standout tracks are "Empty Room" and "Suburban War." The former is relatively short, tightly-orchestrated piece in the vein of "No Cars Go," sans brass, propelled by Win and Régine's dual vocals. The latter is much more mellow, layered with guitars and the occasional piano, and features possibly the best arrangement out of any track on the album. I feel no embarassment when I say I've had this on repeat for at least three iterations.
This record means a lot to me. I have no problem saying that. Having never regarded my childhood or adolescence with either rose-coloured glasses or a cynical eye I feel The Suburbs captures most of everything I felt during those years. Funeral is, and probably will continue to be the album to which I point when people ask why Arcade Fire is important as it is, it being a more raucous, carefree work that serves as a nice "fuck you" to pessimism. The Suburbs, however, is the more personally resonant album and, dare I say it, my favourite. Well played, Arcade Fire. Well played.