Reviewing Arcade Fire is a difficult task, because as far as alternative/indie rock outfits go, they're the best in the biz. And they have the album sales to prove it. The Suburbs has just eclipsed Neon Bible as their highest debut yet, with over 156 000 copies sold in the US alone in its first week. Surveying their work requires a multi-faceted approach because you know that in dealing with frontman Win Butler, you're not dealing with just any dunce; he was with Obama on the campaign trail and pivotal in the aftermath of the Haiti disaster. With Arcade Fire you have to look at the whole picture, because they've given precise detail to every bit of it.
To begin where the story really took flight, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible was an awesome album. Wonderfully complex, it single-handedly tamed the indie-rock sound that was, in 2007, the music industry's petulant, unruly love child. Universally adored by fans and critics the world over, it did wonders for their popularity but will forever haunt them as the benchmark for comparison. Neon Bible was a hopeful, yet scathing commentary on the invasiveness of the modern world. With The Suburbs, the gaze has been redirected from outward to backward; Arcade Fire and Win Butler in particular now look toward the suburban landscape of yesteryear. Butler comments on the power of the urban sprawl to incite apathy and mediocrity. Conceptually it's far more focused than Neon Bible, and typically of Arcade Fire it provokes in you a bitter nostalgia you never knew you had, so enchantingly evocative is the music that delivers it. But whereas Neon Bible was equals parts bitter and sweet, The Suburbs leans more towards the bitter and may isolate fans as a result, which I think is inherently its purpose.
In "Sprawl I (Flatland)", Butler perhaps best sums up the essence of the album when he tells "Took a drive into the sprawl/To find the places we used to play/It was the loneliest day of my life". He's looking for the 'real' in the world, and sadly comes out empty-handed. It's this notion that dominates the opening tracks of the album. Arcade Fire throw us down a self-reflective well with "The Suburbs", "Ready To Start" and "Modern Man", songs that are melancholic with whispery, murmuring vocals, minor string arrangements and brooding lyrical content. By the end of "Modern Man", you feel like you need a rest from the near 15 minutes of incidental music that establishes a dreary surburbia. "Rococo", is a swipe at Arcade Fire's hipster audience, and serves as a bridge to the much needed pick-me-up we get from "Empty Room" and "City With No Children", which along with "Half Light II" are the only optimistic songs of the album that are reminiscent of the pleasing melodic richness we got from early Arcade Fire favourites "Keep The Car Running" and "Intervention".
The second half of the album, beginning with "Suburban War" showcases the band's musical variety which listeners have become accustomed to, going as far as the Blondie-esque "Sprawl II". Butler sings "The music divides us into tribes/Choose your side, I'll choose my side", which restates the dystopian themes of the album and reels us in to the embittered world Butler sings about. You might wonder if the music is this gloomy why you would ever want to be apart of it. Whilst you might not realise it straight away, there is a clever balance of light and dark at work; you just have to find it. Such is the Arcade Fire charm; Butler could sing about pizza flavours and the band would still communicate it in such an expressive package that you'd become a converted vegetarian if that's what they wanted. Lyrics have always been a preeminent feature of Arcade Fire's music, and its their quality and intelligence, combined with the complex arrangements, that separates the band from the rest of the pack.
The Suburbs might very well be the album that divides Arcade Fire fans. It's not as accessible or exciting as Neon Bible, but in many ways exemplifies the band's maturity and is a nice progression. It would be hard to imagine the next album being as dense and thematically laden. Logically their next offering would be a light-hearted one, but knowing Arcade Fire this will probably not be the case. They'll never be a band to sacrifice integrity for commercial means, and The Suburbs is testament to this. Musically, it's widely varied and is a pastiche of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and in Butler's view, Depeche Mode. If you find the gravity of its subject matter tiresome, listen to it just for its musical arrangements. Arcade Fire are truly unique in a world where bands often struggle to be both lyrically and musically virtuous, and The Suburbs is a great exponent of this rare talent.
Highlights :: "City With No Children", "Suburban War", "Month Of May"