albums, music

A Suburbanised Arcade Fire

This is my cover, show me yours.

There are positive ways of framing The Suburbs: that all Arcade Fire music to one extent or another grows in the listening; that Neon Bible, for all its charms, was as bombastic as a band can hope to get in this post-prog age, and a paring-back was essential; that this new record’s central concept and conceit is consistently and fruitfully explored and explicated. Turn then to Funeral, though – put that record in the player and listen to ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ – and all such mealy-mouthed justifications feel a bit limp.

Comparing new records to old is a dangerous sport: Bob Dylan’s career for one is blighted by endless reviews which bemoan that Modern Times or Together Through Life is no Highway 61 Revisited. We must, of course, be willing to let artists shift and change. Taken on its own merits, an album like “Love and Theft” reaches the same heights that Bringing It All Back Home managed in its separate idiom. So Arcade Fire’s latest album needs to be accepted as a different beast, one interested in the day-to-day where the band’s previous efforts have dealt with the singular (death, grieving) or the grand (power, lies). The Suburbs does what it says on the cover, and examines the quiet manner in which our everyday lives play out represents “the death of everything that’s wild.”

Fittingly, the musical wildness of previous albums is also largely suppressed: bar a few moments on ‘Empty Room’ or ‘Month of May’ (both, tellingly, amongst the record’s most forgettable songs), and perhaps on the National-esque ‘Ready to Start’, the tone is gentle and controlled: the careful refrain of ‘Rococo’, or country chug of ‘Wasted Hours’ match the chanted melogy of ‘Half Light II (No Celebration)’. In ‘City With No Children In It’, meanwhile, Win Butler sings about wasted chances and the absence of youth; on the electronica-tinged ‘We Used To Wait’, he observes that his life is changing fast – and yet changing, it would seem, to something slower and less strange than before.

All of which is to say that The Suburbs isn’t a failure, unless one wonders why a record aiming at intimacy is quite so long.  The eight separate covers for this record switch the backgrounds against which an old fashioned, functional-looking car is parked, emphasising that ‘the suburbs’ are not faceless or uniform, even when they may be flattened and safe. This suggests a tonal range which the record’s songs certainly exhibit in terms of genre. They do, though, lack the melodic invention and sheer consistency of the band’s previous efforts. There are undoubtedly minor songs here – songs you can forget, ones you can discount – and if this is thematically apposite it adds nothing to the listener’s enjoyment of the actual music. Arcade Fire have previously given the impression of not knowing the meaning of ‘minor’ (unless we’re talking keys), and so it’s hard not to feel disappointed that in aiming for ‘intimate’, the band at times hit ‘modest’.

Having said all that, I suspect I’ll be turning over thoughts on this record for the rest of the year. Give it chance to grow.


5 thoughts on “A Suburbanised Arcade Fire

  1. byfuselage says:

    I want to comment on this, but not sure I feel fully qualified. I think it needs a lot more listening time.

    I do think it’s way too long, with a mid-tempo, saggy middle section, but as you say, it’s by no means a failure. It feels a little like the kind of record that you keep coming back to, finding new nooks and crannies to get lost in.

    I agree it suffers in a stright up comparison with Funeral (though Neon Bible is often the AF record I turn to when I’m in the mood), but then, so many lesser bands did variations on that ‘epic’ sound in it’s wake that I don’t blame them for wanting to go for something different.

    Do you find the tone of Rococo a bit…off, btw? The idea of them sneering at the very hipster kids that their success rests on makes me feel a tiny bit ill.

    P.s. I have the same version of the cover!

  2. danhartland says:

    I want to comment on this, but not sure I feel fully qualified.

    Oh, come on – like I’m any more so. 😛 You’re spot on that it needs more listens. I’ve just been talking to Anna, and am already reflecting that I’ve been rather harsh to the record. This is because I’m not that excited by it – it hasn’t grabbed me, and that saggy middle is fatal in many ways. But, as you say – there are lots of details and moments which are terribly shiny. Hmm.

    Do you find the tone of Rococo a bit…off, btw?

    Yes. 🙂 The whole record has a bit of Eleanorrigbyitis, though, doesn’t it? All the lonely plebeians and all that. What saves it, if it is saved, is the way the lyrics tie the singer into it all. Rococo is one of the songs which doesn’t pull of that trick…

  3. byfuselage says:

    Ya know, I was JUST coming back here to say I felt like we were both being harsh!! 😉 I have it on right now, and am enjoying it muchly. I meant to say in the first comment that the title track is awesome, so, yeh…it is!

    It reminds me of when Neon Bible came out – initial dissapointment that it wasn’t Funeral Pt 2 gradually giving way to enjoying the record on it’s own terms.

    Hm, more listening methinks

  4. danhartland says:

    The opening track is great, yep – like it enough that I might play it on 50 Miles this Sunday. So I had high hopes for the whole record the very first time I played it … but it never quite hit me again in the same way.

    That may not be, though, a bad thing – lack of immediacy doesn’t mean lack of quality. So, poor first impression. More listening, though, the way forward…

  5. Pingback: Pony Surprise « @Number 71

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