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.