Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
So much about good or bad art is a visceral experience. A good painting or film can make you happy, a bad sculpture or disgusting picture may make you vomit, and a good television show can even bring out feelings of nostalgia in a human being if it lasts long enough. The notion that art or media exists purely as a distraction in some cases is very much justified (read every movie Matthew ‘shirtless’ McConaughey has ever been in bar Dazed and Confused) but in a lot of cases art, good media art cannot simply be dismissed as a distraction, or just another brick in the media wall.
To help support this hypothesis, the Arcade Fire have been making art that has been obtaining an emotional response from anyone with even half a properly working earlobe (by properly working I mean anyone who has the brain capacity to not have even considered seeing “The Expendables”) for the better part of 5 years.
Before I start dissecting their new album, The Suburbs, as a whole, let me just say that in regard to my introduction, the Arcade Fire have that rare, extraordinary gift of making people feel when you listen to their music (n.b, this does not hold up in court). In whatever way it happens, you listen to their music and you get some kind of involuntary emotional response. It is a rare gift and one that should not be taken lightly. I was listening to this album for the third time only four days ago, and whilst listening to one of the albums standout tracks, the sublime Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains), as what usually happens when I hear a good song, I got chills down my spine (which in of itself should not be discounted). But as the song built towards the bridge, chorus and eventually and passionate crescendo, I found myself overcome with emotion. It was not tears, even though there was some water in my eyes. It was more joy, sheer unadulterated joy that music this brilliant could actually exist in my lifetime. I missed the Beatles, The Stones and Floyd. I was too young for Nirvana, and I was caught up in the pop and rap craze when Radiohead were stealing the show. But this, right now, a time that may well be remember as a time when one of the artists of the millennium had their time to shine, I was right there, sitting in my car, part of it all in some small way.
Now, reading over that paragraph it does sound somewhat like I am writing this with bags of money marked ‘from Arcade Fire, make us sound good lil’ buddy’….but that is ludicrous. Huge amounts of money come in suitcases.
It is true, there is somewhat of a Pitchfork / Radiohead thing going on here but rest assured, it’s not all sunshine and farts. My immediate response to the album was primarily anger. I believe I was quoted as saying “Arcade Fire have no right to continue putting out such ridiculous music. It’s basically a form of arrogance.”
It is funny how one of the most amazing things about this band has become one of their primary detractors in some circles. Says one of my friends ‘Arcade Fire always have to make music that means something’. Yes, this is true, every album has had a theme, and I think has been better for it. Should Arcade Fire apologize for not being just another four piece indie band with an indie pop song that’s cute cos it has a long title and the lead singer wears Rivers Cuomo glasses without frames and a desperate lack of a prescription and they named their band by following the rigid indie formula of place + inanimate object + club and one member is a little chubby but he’s a good bassist and they like Woody Allen and talk about him constantly in interviews even though they’ve never seen ‘Play it Again Sam’ ect ect ect? Should they?
Another supposed problem with this album is that it isn’t Funeral. I mentioned this some time ago on one of my other posts when I mentioned “Awesome Album Syndrome” (http://tinyurl.com/2fv4cce). Funeral was such a resounding and universally adored debut that almost by default anything they recorded next would be somewhat of a disappointment. Another friend who was late in listening to the Suburbs (and hated Neon Bible…don’t get me started) keenly asked if it was more like the debut that their sophomore effort. I said it could be considered akin to their debut in as much as it was a return to storytelling, less politically minded and I was reminded of a graduation of the ‘Neighbourhood’ songs, almost as if the protagonists in those songs had matured, mutated and the hope that was shown in those songs was now gone (from memory more ‘like’s’ were used, and I may have burped…but hell, this is my article, I can self edit). He messaged me days later saying ‘I wanted another Funeral. Suburbs is more like Neon Bible’s retarded cousin.’ I guess you can’t please everyone.
Now to the album itself. While many of the year’s best albums have been top heavy, The Suburbs gets stronger as it goes on. It begins with the instantly likeable title track, which is a considerable achievement and a grand addition to their future concert set lists. However while Modern Man, Ready To Start and City With No Children are good songs, they are somewhat subdued and although I am not averse to slow, subtle songs, it as almost as if they are saving something with these, giving a few of them a slightly unfinished feel. However the last half, with songs such as the rollicking Month of May, and The Suburbs take on Rebellion (Lies), We Used to Wait, seems to get better at the conclusion of each song. (Speaking of both Rebellion and We Used to Wait, how is it that songs with a single, anchoring repeated piano chord in an up tempo song is always conducive to a brilliant song? see All My Friends)
Tracks like Deep Blue and Roccoco breed instant familiarity with the album on the first listen thanks to chanted, repeated lyrics. While so many people/David Guetta’s use this as a crutch, Arcade Fire exhibit a master class on how to make a good song even better by simplifying a hook and giving an audience a song they can love instantly.
The real strength of the album, while it may be somewhat of a redundant statement, lies in the so called ‘double songs’. That is, the Half Light’s and the Sprawls. The first songs as a standalone are ok, but in essence are used as a setup for the anthemic closing halves of the duo. The juxtaposition works perfectly.
Half Light II, as a song, is somewhat of a prick tease. It has a driving beat, represents a new, electronic leaning direction for the Fire but never reaches the ‘Springsteenian’ heights it promises in the first half of its ‘tension and release’ song formula. The song is somehow undefinably both better and worse for it. Retaining the subtlety and nuance the Arcade Fire is celebrate for but still failing to reach the heights of a man the band is some would say unfairly compared to.
The other ‘II’ song, Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains)…in a word is unbelievable. The song is simply a throwback moment of electropop that i have already fawned over enough in my first few paragraphs.
Instead I will focus on a member of the Arcade Fire who will perhaps become the breakout member after this record, the spouse of a man (Win Butler) who is already recognised as a genius, Régine Chassagne. While some could argue with merit that on the previous records she was ‘Harrisoned’… that is, thrown a sympathy song or two despite obvious vocal and instrumental talents, she is given a clear and definable voice on this album in regard to her vocals.
Overall, this album is a solid step forward for a band who has made rarely any backward in their relatively small tenure in the popular music scene. Most impressively, the sixteen tracks aren’t excessive. With so many larger scale albums, there seem to be an amount of filler. But this album, or as a reviewer 20 years from now may quote ‘opus’ (maybe too far…but its pretty good) is very well thought out, the songs are well placed and it somehow isn’t too long, despite its outrageous length. It is with this album that the Arcade Fire officially becomes an ‘important’ band in the scheme of the popular music stratosphere.