Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)

On the one hand, The Suburbs is a commendable album. On the other hand, it has several critical flaws that undercut its brilliance. Coming a generous three years after their sophomore album Neon Bible (2007), it certainly sounds like what we’d like Arcade Fire to sound like. Pop the CD in your player (if you’re old-fashioned like yours truly), and there’s no mistaking: that signature dry/dull “indie” drum sound, the bawled vocals of Win Butler, the occasional orchestral flourish and some majestic choruses are all present and accounted for. As the cover and track titles indicate, this is somewhat of a concept album, with several two-part suites and numerous references to some sort of civil war breaking out in and between the suburbs. Are Arcade Fire cementing their critical success with a grand statement, or are they reaching too far and not quite up to task yet?

The Suburbs has some brilliant songs, intriguing at first, and memorable after two or three listens. The first three songs make a strong opener, each flowing into the next while preserving a unique quality. The two “Half Light” songs are beautifully epic, sounding like sweeping soundtracks to some imaginary epic film about the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, songs like “Wasted Hours” showcase a looser, more laid-back sound that was also put to good use on the often bombastic Neon Bible. 1980s style synthesizers have started to make an appearance as well (“We Used to Wait”, “Sprawl II”), showing Arcade Fire are not immune to following trends, rather than setting them.

A few tracks on the album immediately leap out at the listener, especially if he or she is familiar with the previous two albums. “Month of May” rocks harder and faster than anything they’ve attempted before. Another one that is impossible to ignore is “Sprawl II”, with its synth-led “dance” aesthetics. These are brave tracks on an album that for the most part sounds exactly like what we’ve come to expect of Arcade Fire. Apart from these two tracks, The Suburbs is a step back from Neon Bible’s great leap forward, once again embracing the bleakness of 2004’s debut Funeral. Whereas some bands might have relegated these “novelty” tracks to mere B-sides, or a side-project, The Suburbs embraces this diversity. There’s just one problem: the tracks sound too “forced”. “Month of May” sounds exactly like Marilyn Manson’s “We’re From America”, released the previous year. In fact, it sounds like Manson’s “America” with Neon Bible’s own “(Antichrist Television Blues)” played on top of it. The likeness is just too strong to ignore, being a bit off-putting. A similar problem afflicts “Sprawl II”. This track shamelessly mimics Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” by way of Baccara. In a world where lesser offenses are mercilessly punished, Debbie Harry's lawyers should have enough reason to start filing. “Rococco”, for all its interesting rhythmic elements and instrumentation is blessed with one of the most banal choruses of the past decade, along with toe-curlingly self-referential lyrics about “the kids”.

These anomalies aside, the volume of good material is commendable. However, it must be said that The Suburbs is at least three, and possibly four songs too long. At one hour and four minutes, it is some fifteen minutes longer than their previous releases. Sadly, the album suffers through it. Arcade Fire aren’t quite ready to do their The Wall yet; they have the ambition but as of yet they lack the mature songwriting (not to mention much-needed variation) necessary to lay down more than an hour of music. The album is miles ahead of the competition, but its size makes it unpalatable and weighs it down. It especially nosedives after “Month of May”, two or three songs as an epilogue would have been more than enough. Arcade Fire should have taken a leaf out of Radiohead’s and MGMT’s book(s), keeping their latest albums short and extraordinary, rather than falling to the temptation of piling on the songs.

Arcade Fire’s grandest statement yet is commendable for its ambition, scope and sheer volume of eccentric, high-quality pop-rock music with a twist. Not many bands combine the bombast of U2 with a human element, and certainly not in such a thrilling way. The issues with its most outstanding (in the literal sense of the word) tracks somewhat undercut their worth, as does the album’s overall length and somewhat monotonous nature. A flawed masterpiece indeed! Let us hope Arcade Fire manages to surprise next time around, perhaps “pulling a Kid A” before finally making a definitive statement once the band’s experience matches its ambition.