Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
When Canadian multi-instrumentalists Arcade Fire released their début album Funeral in 2004, it was hard to see how it could be beaten. Easily the best music of the year and one of the albums of the decade, it propelled the band from the shaky start of the self-titled EP to global stardom. Six years later and after extensive touring to follow a blistering second album - the wonderfully huge and dark Neon Bible, Arcade Fire, lead by the duo of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, are back with The Suburbs.
As you might expect, The Suburbs is a concept album centred around growing up and the childhood experiences of Win and William Butler. Most notably the music is more uplifting that the previous album while retaining all the energy, exuberance and charm of Funeral - an album that managed to find hope from despair and joy from misery. The Suburbs, which combines the good and bad with chaotic abandon, takes a similar approach and is, importantly, equally expansive. Sixteen songs spanning an hour sounds a daunting prospect but Arcade Fire manage to keep the listeners’ interest, with only one obvious downturn, for the entire album.
The delicate country lilt of the title track introduces The Suburbs. A very strange way to start an album, almost understated, as a prelude to the music that is to come. This is followed by an early highlight Ready To Start - an excellent example of harnessing far too many sounds, concepts and ideas and controlling the song. In a teasing first half, there is no chorus at all, just a drawn out hook followed by a empty spaces in what is a beautifully constructed piece of pop music. In contrast to the upbeat music, Butler warns “Businessmen will drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would”. A last minute forms with a lull and builds to a sudden climax swathed in electronica.
Modern Man, with its stuttering ’missing note’ arrangement continues the sedate start and has echoes of fellow kinsmen The Tragically Hip (see Trouble In The Henhouse). Butler’s vocal floats high one minute and is dramatically forceful the next. And the guitar work in the last thirty seconds in breathtaking. The second highlight Rococo (most likely referring to the social ethos that developed from the ‘late Baroque’ style, than the interior design and fashion) is seeped in the usual deep vibrant string, guitar and vocal arrangements but also an explosive nature, developing from a beguiling looping hypnotic chorus. This is the first time Chassagne adds her vocal and the band lose themselves in the wonder of their own music in the second half.
Opening with more glorious guitars, Empty Room has Chassagne on lead vocals for the first time, slowing down what is a frantic arrangement until the short chorus. This is far removed from the raw outpouring of emotion of In The Backseat but does build to a rousing finale. City With No Children, after another great intro, suffers initially from clumsy vocals/lyrics from Butler in what could be a deliberate attempt to sound childlike, reciting some naïve and amateurish poetry. It quickly recovers into another solid highlight, with some smart observational lyrics, great backing vocals and consistently good guitars.
In one of the album’s more mellow moments, Half Light I is a delicious blend of strings and soft vocals. Butler and Chassagne combine perfectly. Part II (subtitled Celebration) replaces strings for shimmering synths with Butler reminiscing on the past . As the album becomes more ambiguous and obscure, “Now that you have left me here, I will never raise my voice. All the diamonds you have here in this home that has no life” is some of the most interesting and beguiling lyrics on the album. Brilliant stuff and a song that would not be out of place on an Editors album.
Into the second half of The Suburbs, Suburban War is one of the album’s darker moments. The song veers between two arrangements and two moods - one reflective and one aggressive, paralleling the concept of moving away from a childhood home and returning to being drafted to fight for your country - “…my old friends, they don’t know me now…”. From this highlight, the album takes a sudden unexpected move. Why Month Of May wasn’t dropped is anyone’s guess but it does not work, revisits old ground and would benefit from a completely different tempo, arrangement and sound. The second half sounds like something even The Jesus And Mary Chain would reject.
Thankfully this is a minor glitch as Wasted Hours gets The Suburbs back, almost where it starts with the feel of the title track, and the piano-led Deep Blue is more musing through the ages. Only when We Used To Wait starts is there a real sense that The Suburbs has more to offer. “Now our lives are changing fast…”, sings Butler as the songs takes shape and the story unfolds through the five minute epic. Sprawl, in two parts: Flatland and Mountains Beyond Mountains, completes the odyssey in some style. Butler handles part one, a subtle melancholy introduction, for Chassagne to take over for part two - Kylie-esque disco-pop that is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Her vocal is over-produced but it’s a great song, even when Jean Michel Jarre keyboards bring in the final verses. Yes, really.
As the last indulgent final minute and a half - revisiting the title track in a slower arrangement - fades away, it is clear that The Suburbs isn’t perfect. But music never is. Anything that is inspired by, formed from, and chronicles, life is by definition, flawed. It is as if Arcade Fire have deliberately fused this imperfection directly into the heart of some of the songs, to highlight the experiences that are so central to the music. The overwhelming euphoric emotion of Funeral is replaced here by a more reflective sound. The band sound more in control of their music, something evident on the previous album - this is light and airy compared to Neon Bible, more focused and multi-dimensional than Funeral - but with, importantly, all the quality, ideas and brilliance of both.