Saturday, August 7, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)



The morning after I listened to this album for the first time I drove to work playing the National, whose latest record I'd consider to be on the same level of high quality as this. I was struck by the marked difference in two bands with such basically similar appeals and audiences, and of course an occasionally amusing level of Seriousness. The National sounds like a markedly grown-up, sober, resigned group after an hour of perpetual adolescent bluster and confusion from Arcade Fire. Indisputably, there's a need for both, and it's been too long since Win Butler & co. had their say.

For those who've followed the band, it's hard to imagine the 2000s without Funeral and Neon Bible, but luckily not necessary; nearly alone amongst post-Radiohead rock bands, Arcade Fire has managed to enter the radar of a very healthy number of mainstream music listeners. Only the Shins and (soon enough) Vampire Weekend can seriously compete for the title of Most Across-the-Board Popular post-millennial rock band, with clout, sales, omnipresence, universal critical acclaim, and a massive following that tracks their movements. And it's telling that, like the other two named, they have managed this without a shred of major label contact.

Unlike virtually every other band in the current indie rock database, Arcade Fire's influences lay far afield of traditional alternative, bypassing the classic new wave/postpunk lineage; if you try hard enough, you can link them to Television by way of U2, but that's tenuous. Neon Bible did sound slightly like what might have happened if U2 had regained their intensity, lost a few decades of age, and gained some extra songwriting economy, but the favored pop critical comparison seems to be Springsteen. I see it, but I don't really want to because I love the band and can't tolerate the Boss, so I prefer to cite Depeche Mode (an early favorite of Win Butler's), Phil Spector, and the Shangri-Las. Slightly more adult concerns than the last one, considerably less ironic detachment than the first, but they get under the skin in the same way... and they're a surprising kindred spirit of sorts with Spector.

In keeping with the Fire's slight detachment from the Sonic Youth descendents of the world, many are applying the notion of a Concept to the new third album, The Suburbs. I couldn't really say, because such things tend to gripe me, but from artwork to titles to basic tone, there is obviously a thematic concentration on an adult's reflections on growing up in guess where. Butler knows this subject and his ruminations are wise and often touching. The title track, "We Used to Wait," "Deep Blue," and "Wasted Hours" will resonate with most anyone who was raised in a small town, far away from what then seemed like civilization. In particular, I relate strongly to "We watched the end of the century compressed on a tiny screen" (from "Deep Blue"), a remarkably apt line. And "We Used to Wait," perfect rock music in every sense, describes in thankfully unsentimental detail the weird isolation of a childhood spent amongst quiet paved roads, picket fences, well-kept lawns. Not a lament, not a nostalgia trip, not a rebellion, just rich evocation. ("All my friends, they don't know me now" later, on "Suburban War," may count as one or both of those first couple, but who cannot vouch for its dead-eyed truth?)

But examining these songs musically reveals all of the true craft therein. "Deep Blue" may be basic pop singalong, but not one of the other three retreads ground covered on the first two albums. "Wasted Hours" sounds like a Carpenters song reinvented by My Bloody Valentine. The piano-driven "We Used to Wait" is an explosion of life fast and beautiful. And the bouncy, playful "The Suburbs" itself practically qualifies as a sober version of late '60s California pop, the Lovin' Spoonful with responsibilities.

Elsewhere, the reflection is couched in more hyperactive atmospheres. Call Arcade Fire derivative if you want, but "Half Light II (No Celebration)" is first class synth mystery worthy of New Order, delivered with Butler's typical depth, or at least extremity, of feeling, building to an intensity to which it is difficult not to respond. Later on, the relentlessly pounding new-wave dance jam "Sprawl II" fulfills every promise the band's made in its short career with five and a half minutes of unabashed hope and joy. There is more nuanced, perhaps more innovative music being made today, but I'm not aware of anything more exciting than this.

The Suburbs seems designed not just to move forward but to keep everyone who's been waiting for it happy in the process, a noble idea for now but one that could start to hurt them later. For now, the rabble-rousers "Ready to Start" (with its wonderful largeness of sound), "Suburban War" (dig the Roger McGuinn guitar and the crazed backward-looking buildup!), and "City with No Children" (making the Springsteen comparisons all but impossible to resist, but also sounding like a slow-burn Clash song) still connect and sound felt. But the best of the harder-edged cuts is the one already released on a 12" and the one that sounds least like Arcade Fire, the pure punk-rock blast "Month of May," with its oddly infectious rallying cry of "2009 / 2010 / Wanna make a record how I felt then."

Criticisms of Win Butler as a frontman remain understandable to a degree. Gifted as he is, he's only the band's second-best singer. His wife, Régine Chassagne, plays an enormous role in making this group unique, and her unshaking, forceful voice may be its greatest asset. The early standout "Empty Room" owes a lot to Owen Pallett's excellent string arrangement and the incredible momentum with which it bursts out of the gate, but the impassioned, sympathetic glory of Win and Régine's shared vocals sends it soaring. "Half Light I" initially feels like a reject from U2's The Unforgettable Fire (and even more specifically, like their Passengers cut "Your Blue Room"), but in seconds it makes a left turn into Régine's stunning vocals and blissful territory. And if the stirring and wonderfully fresh "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" turns out to be the finest song of 2010, such a result is unimaginable without her blazing, fervently enthusiastic performance. I can only hope we are someday treated to an entire album like it.

I do hope that Arcade Fire rediscover brevity soon; cut this down to thirteen songs and it would be hard to find anything to bitch about. Cut it down to ten or eleven and it would be a masterpiece. Then again, of course, an album with two songs called "Sprawl" doesn't intend to be concise, but the callbacks to the Funeral sense of journey are starting to wear thin, in part because the band isn't necessarily interested in writing or playing the exact same kind of material now. We may have to wait three years to find out where they take it from here, but there's probably some indication in these sixty-five minutes. Unfortunately, there are also redundancies. Although I quite like "Deep Blue," it treads the same ground as "The Suburbs." Less enjoyable are the pace-stalling "Modern Man" and "Rococo." The first, in the unfortunately crucial position of third track on the record, conjures up "Mind" by Talking Heads with its skittering rhythmic changes, here ill-advised; Butler comes off pedantic. "Rococo" takes some of Neon Bible's political pomp to an unsavory and not-particularly-tuneful extreme. Less forgettable and inoffensive: the whining, thin "Sprawl (Flatland)," which feels like theatrical linking material and will give Win Butler-haters all the ammunition they need to dismiss this album if they somehow get to hear it. But there is so much to love on The Suburbs, it's not worth bellyaching about the missteps.

An acquaintance who is not a fan regularly compares Arcade Fire to Coldplay, arguing that Coldplay pulls the same emotional tricks but without the credibility. Yet I don't hear much genuine passion out of Chris Martin, and I completely don't hear the eclecticism and experimentation that really makes AF's albums worth hearing. Let's hear Coldplay come up with something like Funeral's "Haiti," for instance. Yes, a lot of their best songs have the same fist-in-the-air intensity of midtempo U2 -- "Intervention," one of my favorites, comes to mind -- but so long as there's something obviously genuine behind the songs, what's wrong with that? What I think people miss is that these angst-ridden little operas are important for rock & roll, that Win Butler's solidarity with "the kids" (the phrase he's being called to task for falling back on with the comical overzealousness of Ian Broudie and his hatred of "lies") and writing of personal, private loss in grandiose terms is comparable with Alex Chilton's and is quite moving, and that Arcade Fire are masters of melodrama... a role that needs to be filled with levity and charm in 2010.

All that said, it's been interesting to read the slightly muted praise The Suburbs is garnering; the reviews are still wildly laudatory, but there's a hint of hesitation. Meanwhile, a lot of friends to whom I've spoken are disappointed, generally because "it's no Funeral," a comparison they naturally make because, for all their evolving, Arcade Fire are still working from the sound they inaugurated in 2004. I'd say Suburbs is a more varied record than its predecessors, but so was Fables of the Reconstruction; there's a good chance Arcade Fire have now taken their original modus operandi as far as it can go. Album 4 will likely be the time for the Big Stylistic Change, the one that will certainly divide fans and will meet the world with either ecstasy or dread. You can hear hints of the restlessness already on the title track and "Sprawl II." Jumps and risks. I, for one, am pretty excited.

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