So, what’s the verdict? It’s good. It’s really good. Actually, you might say it’s great, but if you did, you wouldn’t be giving it a solid, concrete listen. Truth be told, it’s somewhere in that tender underbelly between great and good. The awkward moment where we really can’t tell if the music we’re listening to either affects us because we want it to, or if it’s genuinely hitting us hard. That leaves us in quite a predicament then, huh?
Okay, so what the hell are we talking about?
If you’re fucking clueless: Arcade Fire just finished a new album. It’s titled The Suburbs. It’s their longest yet (clocking in at just over an hour). It’s filled with personal, heartbreaking images that somehow seem quite accessible. It’s rough in some areas, it’s clean in others. It runs, it chugs, it breathes, it shrugs. It’s a low concept, high built vehicle that sells one idea: This isn’t the work of an indie band. No, if we’re to learn anything from the North American sensation’s third studio effort, it’s that they’re not only here to stay, they’re here to establish themselves as a permanent, essential chunk of your record collection. They want that space, to the right of the Allman Brothers and just a few inches away from The Beatles.
And why not? They deserve it. Some have argued this for years – and they’d be right; just revisit 2004’s Funeral and/or 2007’s vastly underrated (yes, underrated) Neon Bible – now they have few to convince. Because, if we’re to take The Suburbs into consideration, it’s pretty obvious now that the Arcade Fire not only seem vastly superior to their past colleagues, they seem to have exonerated them altogether. In other words, can you even think of a band from their class that comes close to rivaling them? Don’t answer that. Rhetorical question.
With The Suburbs, Win Butler has never felt more human. As epic and sweeping and emotional a record like Funeral may be, there’s something distant about its songs. Take “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Rebellion (Lies)”, for instance. They’re wonderful, they’re classics, but they lack a certain connection. The former remains an aggressive rocker, letting the distortion overtake everything, while the latter comes across as a church anthem, designed to ignite audiences and not just individuals. Now, take a song like “Wake Up”, which is arguably just as hard-hitting as the aforementioned, and notice the difference in intimacy. It’s less alien than “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and far more direct than “Rebellion (Lies)”. When Butler exclaims, “I guess we’ll just have to adjust,” there’s no question that you don’t feel he’s speaking right at you, tugging at your sleeve to come along for whatever journey he’s about to go on. That’s a beautiful thing, right? Okay, focus on that feeling and you’re close to how the majority of the songs feel here. It’s an important nerve to strike, especially given the record’s lyrical context.
The idea behind The Suburbs is simple, if not universal. It’s about aging. Of course it’s deeper than that, but if you were to summarize all the underlying emotions and just cut right to the chase, it’s really about coming to grips with the full package that is growing up. Incentives include: cutting off friends, figuring out what to do with nagging memories that still seem so important, discovering the ugly truths and illusions of childhood, and the evolution of everyone’s inner morals. Fuck, if you don’t think that’s one hell of an ambitious agenda for a rock album, then, well, you should probably stick to classical literature, instead.
Then again, some of this reads like it’s from an old, dusty tale, straight out of the depths of Americana.
On the opening title track, without a question the strongest of the 16 here, Butler horrifically examines his natural habitat, exclaiming, “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling,” eventually concluding that everything aged to mean “nothing.” He pleads that he wants a daughter, so that he can “show her some beauty.” He insists, “We’re still screaming.” Okay, so it’s dark. Very dark. But some of the images (“So move your feet from the hot pavement/And into the grass”) tickle the mind in all the right places, where you can’t help but hit on some of the realizations, as well. In all honesty, who hasn’t returned home and seen more cracks than bonds? On the album’s second punch, “Ready To Start”, Butler comes to grips with adulthood (“Businessmen drink my blood”), spitting out cold lines (“And if I was yours/But I’m not”) and finding solace in being alone. It’s biting, but Butler’s mixed feelings keep us interested and along for the ride.
And what a ride that unfolds. When Butler hinted that the album’s new sound would draw influences from the likes of Neil Young and Depeche Mode, he wasn’t kidding. That’s exactly what it sounds like here. The screechy chorus and piano jingle of “The Suburbs” or the rusty guitar kicks of “Deep Blue” could have made its way onto After the Goldrush, while the dance-y gelato that’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” feels stripped from 90’s-era DM. But there are other sounds that ooze through, too. “Half Light I” nearly sounds like a revamped update of DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends”, “Month of May” strips down the band and uses that indie punk rock fury that TV on the Radio’s sort of made their own (e.g. “Wolf Like Me”), and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” would have made a great inclusion to U2’s The Unforgettable Fire.
Influences aside, there’s a great wealth of creativity here. While the song’s aren’t as singular as they were on Neon Bible, together they support one another. “Rococo” won’t be one of the most requested songs on the band’s forthcoming tour, but on record, it’s a magnetic bridge between two stellar tracks, “Modern Man” and “Empty Room”, respectively. No better example of this arrives than with “Month of May”, the toasty, punky churner that levels out mellow, meditative ballads like “Suburban War” and “Wasted Hours” (which will no doubt soundtrack any and all future fishing trips). In a sense, this album does share a great deal with Funeral, in that all the hallmark tracks are supported by enigmatic burners that keep you glued in an unhealthy stupor.
Looking back, the only question left to answer is, “Did it have to be 16 tracks?” But that’s an unfair question, simply because that’s a question anyone could kick around with any hearty album. For example, would Springsteen’s The River been more iconic if the E Street crew had decided to shave off, at the very least, five tracks? There’s no stable answer for that. You can argue either way (as you can with anything musically-related). Sure, it could have been more concise. (Come to think of it, the same argument and rationale surely surrounds The Clash’s triple album effort, Sandinista!) But here’s the thing, by scraping up the tracklist, you’re not only losing music, you’re turning off the light on countless images that could essentially be key artifacts in the bigger picture. That’s a risk that just doesn’t seem worth it.
In an age where the album finds itself in peril, the idea of such an effort as this seems almost dangerous. But, you have to sort of treat it retroactively. Don’t run through it. Take a stroll. See the sights. Feel the vibes. Rinse and repeat. As Butler sings, “Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last,” the same should be said for music. These days we’re speed demons with our audio. We never stop, either. We only switch gears and accelerate faster. Sooner or later, we’re bound to crash. With The Suburbs, the Arcade Fire takes their time in visiting one street after another, and while some might turn the corner a block or two early, the majority should find the ride quite enjoyable. Just don’t let anyone touch the dial.
Final verdict? It’s unbelievable.
Essential Tracks: “The Suburbs”, “Ready to Start”, and “We Used to Wait”