First listen - Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'
Who's saying what
Release date: August 2nd.
See the eight alternate covers
Arcade Fire's third album is a sprawling, lumbering, shape-shifting beast that pushes their muse up out of the rabbit hole of Funeral, beyond the dystopian visions of Neon Bible and into the basements, carparks and, yes, arcades of a yellow-eared Nowheresville. It's the Richard Linklater version of the band's vision, as opposed to - I don't know - Guillermo del Toro's Funeral and Ridley Scott's Neon Bible. Or bookmark it this way: the band's dress code for Funeral was formal wear. For Neon Bible it was futuristic militarism. For the few shows they've performed The Suburbs material they're wearing denim. The tight-knit Montreal kids don't just wear their hearts on their sleeves, they have them tailored.
The Suburbs is sixteen songs long and runs for an hour, making it the band's longest album by a good 12 minutes over Funeral, (Neon Bible was just over 45 minutes). This is a good and not so good thing. The expanded suite allows the group fair scope to explore their chosen thematic vision from any angle they can think of: multiple genres, production experiments, recording techniques and shifting narrative points of view. What it doesn't do so well lyrically is flesh out this suburban dreamscape beyond generic touchstones. There's disaffected teens, there's nostalgia, there's dour war rhetoric, there's the empty suits, there's the confused relationships, the spectre of dead shopping malls. But rarely does this population spring to life, their situations are described without poetry. A heart beats inside, but there's nothing severe outside the frame; lyrically we're peeping through the domestic keyhole, outwards instead of in. This sounds like heavy criticism but it's not - necessarily; the suburbs after all, refers to the urban "sprawl", the constructed rabbit warrens that humankind finds itself adapting to. So perhaps its apt that the records point of view is concerned with the way this geography affects (and has affected) peoples lives, as opposed to the emotional minutiae within. Such an airy tactic sets up a vacuum for the inevitable discussion as to What It All Really Means, and The Suburbs certainly sparks those synapses. Still, one can't help but compare these wandering sketches to the romantic supernatural dreamers of Funeral, and wonder what they would make of the grounded, somnambulist world of The Suburbs. Fortunately it's the band's musical leaps of faith - the majority of which are stunningly realised - that best breathe life into this towering monument.
Still, let's not get bogged down in set-building; this is a diverse, hypnotic and damn great record.
If the songwriting core of Arcade Fire has one blazing talent it's this: they have an uncanny ability to create new songs that sound like standards, (actually, there's another: the sense that all their songs take place at night), and the opening title track defines this. A jaunty acoustic guitar is mirrored by a piano riff, as droning reverbed guitar notes glance off distant strings, and frontman Win Butler begins 'The Suburbs' with a stanza that could - and will - be lifted from any of the following fifteen tracks: "In the suburbs I / I long to drive / And you told me we'll never survive / Grab your mothers keys we're leaving". It echoes excellent post-Funeral cut 'Cold Wind' and establishes a go-to template for much of the album, whatever the tempo: smart pockets of classic hooks, distant electric guitar sounds, a lurking acoustic and playful meters, Butler's voice out front, articulate and attractive.
'Ready To Start' then wrests attention by slamming the foot down on the accelerator, a one chord shift up the fretboard all that's required for the chorus to emerge from squalls of electric noise. And we're away: faded Chuck's hovering on the clutch, flannel sleeves tapping on the window jam, a full car of no-one saying anything, zipping through the night looking for shit to do. Feeling like everything's more important and worse than it is. "Now you're knocking on my door / Sayin' please come out with us tonight / But I would rather be alone / Than pretend to feel alright". Arcade Fire have a knack for creating songs that sound like what their subjects would listen to, and by the time 'Ready to Start' erupts in a hail of bleating synths and pounding drums we're deep inside this disenchanted, adrenalised (and somehow very '90s) teenage headspace. So much so that it's almost a shame when 'Modern Man' shifts the perspective from the adolescent to the elder. Over a gentle 9/8 beat and upbeat nylon acoustic, Butler references the man of the title but doesn't go deep, outlaying quibbles about waiting in line and not being able to sleep at night. Broad brushstrokes.
'Rococo' is one of the weirder songs here (and there's a few). Like a doomier, less goopy version of Grizzly Bear's 'Knife', complete with thudding reverb and shuddering synths. Who or what "Rococo" is we never learn (though its possibly a reference to the ornate 18th Century art movement, which would explain both the allegations leveled at the songs "kids" and the harpsichord and classical trills floating by). It's here that the band's adoption of the synthesiser really announces itself - it's not a brittle, spacey sound of modern pop, rather the dirgy, groaning machine noises of Joy Division and Depeche Mode. It's all over this album and, as a creative tool, seemingly replaces the group singing and classical hooks from albums past.
'Empty Room' is the first track to pass by without much fuss, a Régine Chassagne-led whirling number that works more as a rushing segue - at 2:50 that seems to be the point. 'City With No Children' shares a groove with Radiohead's 'There There', and has Butler intoning "The summer that I broke my arm / I waited for your letter / I have no feeling for you now / Now that I know you better", its chorus going on to stretch out the vague 'us vs them' platitudes that the group can often fall back on: "Feel like I been living in / A city with no children in it / A garden left for ruin / By your millionaire inside of a private prison". This "class divide" focus was an awkward motif on Neon Bible and gave detractors fuel for arguing that the band had a tendency to preach. (Which could be looked at two ways: 1. The group being outwardly emboldened by the success of Funeral or 2: An artistic device to promote the mindset of the album). Nonetheless, those iffy ghosts are raised again here, when Butler flirts with Conor Oberst-like accusations: "When you're hiding underground / The rain can't get you wet / Do you think your righteousness can pay the interest in your debt? / I have my doubts about it". It's a wobbly song that doesn't particularly develop musically, 'City With No Children', and remains jauntily at odds with the spell cast elsewhere.
On first listen, 'Half Light I' shares an almost identical chord structure to San Francisco band Girls's recent Album song 'Laura' - in fact remove the soaring baroque strings and the gloomy synth hum and the Chassagne/Butler co-sung tune would slot right in on that bands record. (I wrote down "congratulatory French ballroom", for what that's worth.) 'Half Light II (No Celebration)' is the band filtered through New Order - arpeggiated synth stabs over a dirgy digital beat, woozy fake string sounds and Butler singing again about something that he's either unwilling to clearly illustrate or can't: "Some people say we've already lost / But they're afraid to pay the cost / For what we've lost". Again, Oberst's ok-ish electronic excursions on Digital Ash In A Digital Urn come to mind, and with this we come to the spine of the record. 'Half Light II' completes a run of three or so songs that might gel with time, but initially stick out as the band trying something new but losing their essence in the murk.
The second half of The Suburbs, however, is crystalline. A rewarding descent into self-reflection, one which more fully realises the suburban malaise, the melancholy, boredom and unfocused hope tangled up within the compartmentalised suburban life. From its opening 12-string arpeggios, 'Suburban War' is gorgeously evocative in a similar way to Neon Bible highlight 'Ocean Of Noise'. The alternating minor chords with the major, reverb guitar chinks, band coos and Butler singing about "my old friends" very much recalls an updated 'Off He Goes' from Pearl Jam's No Code (and locals Augie March). At least until the verse switches to a quicker tempo, before returning to the subtly catchy verse and the album's opening line: "In the suburbs I / I learned to drive / And you told me we would never survive / So grab your mother's keys / We leave tonight". After the clearest call to arms on the record so far ("now the music divides / us in to tribes / choose your side / I'll choose my side"), the song splits into a colossal, clattering coda, Neon Bible's 'Black Wave/Bad Vibrations' style, that seems purpose built for the live arena. And so here, the previousl released garagey rocker 'Month Of May' makes perfect sense, the frantic explosion to the prior's building of tension. Butler's slim dabs at 'kids' and 'driving around' gives the sense that these characters are stuck to the slot-car track, reprising older roles - which may or may not be the point.
The dazed melancholy returns on the 'Wasted Hours', as if Depeche Mode were a porch-bound country band playing to the sun going down. 'Deep Blue' continues this descent into ethereal evening with some of Butler's best: "Here / In my place and time / And here in my own skin / I can finally begin / Let the century pass me by / Standing under a night sky / Tomorrow means nothing". It's a stark reminder that the Arcade Fire rarely fail to create instantly memorable moods and hooks. And that when they do arrive, they have the artillery to make them sound more important than anything else. The following 'We Used To Wait' embraces this dramatic firepower, quickening from a pulsing piano line laced around an individuals ills with modern society ("I used to write / I used to write letters I used to sign my name / I used to sleep at night / Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain") into a black rumble of bass notes and creaking guitar plinks. As the song blooms to its triumphant finale there's an anthemic lineage evident; 'We Used To Wait' puffs up to 'Rebellion (Lies)', 'Wake Up' and 'No Cars Go' in scale and should do similar live.
As we approach the finale, 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' is a sleepy curveball, detailing an adolescent's longing worldview via a theatrical, melancholy tale (think Tom Waits' 'Alice') that seems culled from some Brechtian lovers' death scene. And so completely throws you for what comes next. I mean, when 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' kicked in I started laughing. It sounds like ABBA being fronted by Karin Dreijer Andersson from The Knife singing Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' and it is fabulous. Chassagne takes the lead and gives the performance of the record, singing over galloping sixteenth beats and glorious tropical disco synths: "You heard me singing and you told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock / These days my life I feel it has no purpose / But late at night these feelings swim to the surface". And just like that, Arcade Fire thrust you into the last minute of the Blue Light disco, evoking the reason you put posters of rock stars on your wall and once jumped around the room with a tennis racket - childlike in its glee. It's effortless pop music that sounds like nothing the Arcade Fire have ever done, and it's difficult to stop listening to. (I guarantee you that bands, remixers and festival DJs will surely be dropping 'Sprawl II' forevermore.) It's kind of genius. As such the melancholic reprise of the opening track in 'The Suburbs (Continued)' finishes the album aptly, the pop fever dream receding into shadows which - if the album spins again - heralds a new dawn. And a new night. And a new dawn. And a new skin on the same life. And so on. "If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I'd only waste it again"...
The songs that make up The Suburbs translate as apparitions from town Everywhere, a warped patchwork of fuzzy memory, imagination and adolescent longing. And just like those weird personal recollections, many are surreal in their vivid, emotionally sharp recall, while a handful remain blurred and fleeting, distant and beyond effect. For all its minor faults and major successes (even just democratically - that the song remains king, that no one here overplays, nor goes unnoticed, in a seven piece band, is a feat in itself), The Suburbs is the sound of a band stretching themselves - artistically and musically - whilst attempting to revisit their roots. Or as drummer Jeremy Gara said in a recent interview: "The underlying theme is where you grow up, where you come from. And given that we’ve been through the craziest life possible for the last five years, it was only natural for us to think back to how things were. That’s the concept – but we just fall short of it being a total concept album." He's right. While it's slightly disappointing that there's no narrative arc to knit all this together (though it won't stop fans and critics trying), they've still managed to produce a fantastic set of thematically linked tunes that sound quite like nothing else. Not even them. Sure there's a few ideas that don't last, there's moments of indecision, morphing identities, thrills and fleeting confusion. Glorious growing pains.
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