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Snap Judgment: The Arcade Fire's 'The Suburbs' and 'Month of May' hint at something bigger

May 27, 2010 |  1:09 pm

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The Arcade Fire's 2004 debut "Funeral" careened the band out of Canada's then-burgeoning indie scene with an orchestral-pop grandeur. On record, the songs were ornate, and hinted at the near relentless instrument-swapping theatricality that has marked the act's live shows.

A follow-up, 2007's "Neon Bible," took a turn for the somber, dialing down some of the act's momentum. While there were stand-out moments, such as the hymn-like "Intervention," a slow-building anthem driven by church organs, the act's skepticism toward big ideas such as faith, consumerism and suburbia weren't always matched with the requisite drama.

An early peek at the band's third album, "The Suburbs," which won't be released until Aug. 3, may on first listen present an image of a band that's taking a more inward focus. "Gonna make a record in the month of May," singer Win Butler snarls in the opening moments of "Month of May," one of two new tracks the band officially unveiled on its Web site today. It's loud, fast and shockingly direct, built around a punk rock beat and tersely fuzzed-up guitars. Butler sounds a bit like Neil Young, and the riffs come off like a nod to early Queens of the Stone Age.

Yet for a band that hasn't yet shied away from tackling weighty issues, is one to be a little underwhelmed that the Arcade Fire now appear to be singing about rock 'n' roll? Pair it, however, with "The Suburbs," the album's title track that was made available for purchase today, and a bigger vision starts to take shape.

"Month of May" is a burst of distorted frustration -- not so much about making music as capturing the desperation and isolation behind it. The kids are standing still with their "arms folded tight," and the image of the town is of one that's depressed, with forceful winds and torn down wires. A studio-distorted rhythmic break leads the track into its final, most telling moments.

"I'm still driving around and around and around and around," Butler sings, trading in the song's earlier force for resignation. Backing harmonies haunt the singer, and either guitar streaks or synth flare-ups tap a weather-alarm panic. Ultimately, one gets the sense that the song is less about the exhilaration of recording music, and more about simply being stuck. The Arcade Fire are rarely this monotonous and straight-forward, but the characters in "Month of May" aren't going anywhere. "Just when I knew what I wanted to say," Butler sings, "the violent wind blew the wires away."

It's a vision of rock 'n' roll not too unlike the ones touched upon by Wilco -- the lost dreams and aimless rage of the local guitar hero in "Misunderstood," for instance. It's also a bookend to the album's title track and official single. If "Month of May" is burned-out and aggressive, "The Suburbs" puts its image of lower-class despair with a more jaunty arrangement.

The skip-along-the-sidewalks keyboard and summer-breeze violins seem designed to capture an old-timey sort of charm. It could, in fact, be a soundtrack to a 1950s propaganda film designed to sell the suburban life, all while the verses roll through the decades. Post-war white flight leads to boredom and eventually gives way to failing '70s structures.

But the Arcade Fire aren't giving a cynic's history lesson. A swirl of instruments in the song's final moments, and a guitar that takes a dive for the melancholy, reveal that any hints of this being a bouncy, lighter Arcade Fire are only there to subvert. If "The Suburbs" isn't instantly arresting, it is a carefully orchestrated rumination on suburban emptiness. "So can you understand," Butler sings, "why I want a daughter while I'm still young?" 

For one of North America's most successful indie bands, any glimpses of new Arcade Fire music will be dissected, backlashed and then revered -- perhaps not necessarily in that order -- within hours of their leaking or being made available online. Neither song released is as grandly anthemic as some of the Arcade Fire's most celebrated work, but taken together they offer plenty of reasons for fans to be excited. These aren't, after all, songs built for 99-cent downloads. They feel as if they're part of a larger piece that's yet to be revealed.

--Todd Martens

Photo: The Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. Credit: Getty Images


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