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Album review: Arcade Fire's 'The Suburbs'

ARCADE_FIRE_NLM_3_ In “We Used to Wait,” a restlessly mutating song deep in the recesses of the Arcade Fire’s ambitious new album, “The Suburbs,” Win Butler sings about a time when handwritten letters were the norm, and we waited for correspondences to wend their way through the postal system.

But Butler, the lead singer and principal lyricist for the Quebecois band, isn’t nostalgic by practice. “By the time we met,” he admits, “the times had already changed. So I never wrote a letter. I never took my true heart. I never wrote it down.” Later he says he will do these things, but it’s safe to file that under “the broken promises we make to ourselves in the instant gratification age.” Sure, and less time on Facebook as well, right?

One promise that the Arcade Fire keeps is crafting an old-fashioned, back-to-front exploration of one topic. In this case, it’s suburbia, the album’s most immediate symbol of complacency. But Arcade Fire’s third album doesn’t seek to condemn; the band knows that whether in a city — its Montreal or here in Los Angeles — or a subdivision outside Houston, (where Butler grew up), we’re all grasping for meaning. We’re searching in the shadows of the shopping malls that singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne observes endlessly rising in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

Claiming seven members, though often swelling to more in a live setting, Arcade Fire first gained recognition in indie circles with its 2004 debut, “Funeral,” which established its talent for combining the symphonic with a certain wiry punk agility. By the time its follow-up, “Neon Bible,” landed in 2007, Arcade Fire was headlining venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, where it first played in 2005 with admirer David Byrne.

Arcade Fire tends to cleave to singular concepts, wrenching elaborate but intimate orchestrations from both the big strokes and nuances, but on its previous efforts, the results were sometimes too pristinely chilled on art-rock ice.

Occasionally, the band gets trapped in the same frost on “The Suburbs,” but the moments when it strikes warmth are some of the best of its career. Arcade Fire seems to have borrowed ideas from such bards of the wasteland as Bruce Springsteen. And while they don’t fashion songs with the immediate hit potency as “Dancing in the Dark,” the band members find a way to tap into the same approachable frustration and tenderness.

“Modern Man” is an impeccable showcase, a mature, controlled song that features a vision of the so-called Modern Man waiting in line, going nowhere, bothered by some ineffable sense of opportunity unfulfilled. It’s underscored by rough, cottony guitars that almost occlude the song’s chillier synth effects.

In one of the record’s many wonders of sequencing — a lost art in the download age resurrected on “The Suburbs” — “Modern Man” is followed by “Rococo,” a resplendent epic wound up by near-hysterical strings that encases one of the album’s trickiest sentiments: Making fun of the modern kids. It’s hard to tell if Butler was once one of them or not. Is it a swipe at what he knows all too well, or is he simply casting disparagements? Either way, Butler sounds angry. He nearly spits out the word “rococo,” as if the fanciful living rooms of old — picture the Draper household in “Mad Men” — will explode into flames from his very force.

ARCADE_FIRE_ALBUM_ART_3_ A kind of meta-commentary is used to brilliant effect throughout the album. As much as “The Suburbs” seems to be a stubborn reinforcement of the pleasures of a complete, multi-song work of art, it also critiques the very impatience that resulted in listeners abandoning the album format. In “We Used to Wait,” he sings, “we used to wait for it, now we’re screaming, ‘sing the chorus again.’ “ In “Suburban War,” Butler laments that “music divides us into tribes,” though his band, first crowned by cool-arbiter Pitchfork for its debut, has benefited from such tribalization as much as anyone.

Beyond the lyrics, the musical inspiration suggests a certain amount of nostalgia as well. There are Springsteen and Neil Young, but they mine the ’80s and ’90s as well, shuffling in the synths and pulsing dance beats of New Order and Depeche Mode.

Bloat, however, occupies “The Suburbs” just as it does Orange County. The album inevitably sprawls too far; a few songs could have been sacrificed without losing the central conceit. “Sprawl I” is uncomfortably maudlin, and “The Suburbs (continued)” only unmoors the complicated emotional balance of the title track.

All the same, “The Suburbs” is an accomplished love letter that radiates affection as much as bitterness. Don’t forget the album, they seem to urge, the slow read, the long stretch of night uninterrupted by e-mail or text messages. In doing so, Arcade Fire offers “hope that something pure can last.”

— Margaret Wappler

Arcade Fire
"The Suburbs"
(Merge Records)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

Photos: First, the Arcade Fire. Credit: Eric Kayne. Second, "The Suburbs" album art. Credit: Merge Records. 


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Comments () | Archives (17)

there's a lot of crap being thrown around by reviews like this one. arcade fire offer very little that is new, and much more that is nearly directly ripped from respected bands over the past 30+ years. so what you hear is basically rooted in post-punk i.e. Joy Division, U2, The Cure, Talking Heads to luminaries such as Springsteen and Neil Young, Electronica royalty i.e. Bjork, to current hipsters such as MGMT and The Knife. Comparisons to Depeche Mode are laughable at best and serve mainly as a smoke & mirrors distraction so that you don't think of MGMT and The Knife. Arcade Fire rip direct sounds from groups as famous and established as U2 and even worse rip direct melodies on top of similar textures from MGMT.

Hey if you buy it, and buy into it that's cool. I hope you like it as long as it gets you into music. However, if you deeply care about music then you may want to heed some amount of caution in knowing that this album is not nearly as adventurous as Arcade Fire and its media supporters want you to think it is. Although many of the sounds are likable, you might get frustrated as to why this sounds like a well-traveled road.

I don't get the need to take a provincial swipe at Orange County.

frisko's comment about Arcade firing sounding or even copying music from other bands is so ridiculous. When you compare a current band with a string of bands from a certain time period, you're basically dating yourself as some guy in his 40's who still is living in the 80's or a snobby 20 something pretending to have indepth knowledge of a music movement.

Frisko, enjoy the music on its on merits. There is no such thing as original work, only improvements or interpretations of previous works. So relax there old guy, or snobby and let the kids listen to their music.

the suburbs -4.5/5 lyrics - 4/5 music

Arcade Fire has always been a band that experiments with different genres of music, wearing their influences clearly on their sleeves. They admit this freely, and honestly, what band would exist without influences? What is not true is that they rip melodies directly from other bands. Their songs are very specifically crafted with their influences in mind, but the end product is clearly "Arcade Fire because they add another level to the past. I often think that Arcade Fire albums are simultaneously behind and ahead of their time. I have seen many live musical acts in my lifetime, including U2, Springstein, Floyd and MGMT. I have never encountered a band that can produce such a rich and layered sound so consistently, and who can put out albums where every single song is solid. I would even go so far as to say that when they experiment with the sound of Springstein or U2, they do a better job than those original artists did. What I love about this band is how the instrumentation consistently compliments the lyrics in a way that very few artists achieve. Whether its the indication of alarms and ice in "Power Out" via accordian and xylaphone or the echoing of a well through violins descending in minor key in "The Well and the Light House," this band consistently ties lyrics with specific sounds. The new album is no different.Empty room echoes with pulsing strings and eventually swallows up Regine at the end, Half Light I captures dusk in a way I have never heard, and ghostly voices create howling wind in "Month of May." It is an amazing and intelligent album through and through.

I think this band is a joke. Ditto MGMT and Vampire Weekend.

It seems as though anyone with an Mbox & who can manage to twang three barely-in-tune chords together is hailed as a genius.

Different and quirky does not equal good. Too many critics are afraid to point out the pimples on the naked emperor's ass.

MGMT and Vampire are self-indulgent dorm-room stroke sessions that somehow escaped the quad.

@frisko very well said. i'm so tired of the latest offerings from indie bands. you would think the post-punk revival was over and done with after JC Chasez gave a crack at the joy division sound. god can't think bands stop trying to recreate the manchester scene and take ownership of modern times by defining this generation's music in its own forward thinking way??? the post-punk movement was a complete reflection of its time. those artist had this "destroy your idols" attitude and created a sound so progressive the record industry was completely shaken up by it. today's musicians are too lazy or scared to attempt anything remotely revolutionary.

i have waited for 3 years for this album to come out,like most or all fire fans the best day of the las 3 years has come,,,listening to the album in my bedroom lights down low the album begins and strait away i feel a sence of obsene pleasure,for me the sound of arcade fire is something i have been waiting for, for most of my life, and the did not disipiont,i think the combination of sound and lyric works perfect in a way they could only make,,,,well done fire and hope to see you all at reading

The review of this cd reeks of manufactured coolness.
"If you don't like it... then your not cool"
I'll go the for "not cool" route.

@frisko:

yeah, 'cause bands never sound like their influences (rolls eyes)...

Also, I love the Knife, and this sounds nothing like it except that Spawl II has synth arpeggios (as do many songs).

Nothing in the review described it as "adventurous" or ground breaking, but rather described the album for what it was : a successful thematic achievement with some good tunes. As someone "into music," that's good enough for me.

it gets better as I listen to it. honestly, after Neon Bible I had a bad taste in my mouth. The production of that album was horribly murky and the lyrical delivery was more preachy than Bono if you can imagine.
I think after careful listening on a good sound system...this is their best recorded/produced album yet. However, although it is strong and consistent there is nothing on here as immediately likable and melodically strong as 'Wake-Up" .
I do not think this is the "second coming" or that AF are the new 'messiahs of rock' as many wannabe-trendy-media outlets want you to believe. The album is well-done and intriguing in several aspects, but it is no where near as inventive and 'avant-garde' as advertising and media are touting. AF were instantly crowned and given the keys to the kingdom...and they've been the elected poster children of the promise of what indie-rock should be, for some time now. By now, AF are hardly 'indie' in the typically small, intimate sense. They are gargantuan as far as that scene is concerned. Not that this is all bad. We all grow up at some point. But, they are now the sort of phenomenon that harvests throngs of fans who ponder their every syllable and worship every mention of the Arcade Fire brand. It's like people who by a Jeep that always by a Jeep and nothing else. AF have carefully cultivated brand-loyalty. Good for them, but there's a lot more adventurous music out there that deserves considerably more praise. Still, if you're someone who is getting into music that's deeper than what the radio offers, AF aren't the worst band to start with. After you hear them however, you should trace the myriad of artists that AF are copying if you haven't yet. Bands like: The Cure, Talking Heads, Wilco, U2, Joy Division, and artists such as Bjork, The Knife, David Byrne, and Bruce Springsteen.
Album rating: 3 1/2 *
As for AF fans who treat music as if they're rooting for a football team, here's what I think of how you react to your demigods:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-fAQcx2jzk

hehe..i'm neither 40 nor a snobby kid. it's funny to me that once someone has a different opinion that he/she must be either old or a snob. :-)

anyhow, i stand behind what i said although i think the album is a little better than i originally thought - and still not as good as many people want it to be.

i guess it's not all bad to have/sound like your influences...but for a band that's embraced as being brilliant I think you should have your own palate or have evolved by album #3 to the point that it's not entirely clear who is influencing who. It's just that what Arcade Fire do as well as a lot of major 'indie' bands do is take an approach similar to The Killers ' Sam's Town' album or Coldplay's ...well, everything Coldplay has done so far. They take every idea from respected innovative artists and weave a collage out of it hoping to not only come up with something new, but to create a sound that appeals to a much larger group of people rather than actually doing this on their own merit.

There are plenty of original sounding artists out there. You just have to look a little deeper if you haven't. Sure, they have influences but I think they revere those influences well enough that you couldn't particularly tell. Look, AF aren't the worst band out there...they're just simply not the best either.

BTW, Sprawl II is a complete rip of MGMT. It's so sickeningly apparent. ;-(

As a self-confessed music snob (you know the resume: fave bands Sonic Youth, The fall, Nick Cave, I saw Nirvana live twice, saw White Stripes in a small club blah blah blah) so my pedigree has always put Arcade Fire beneath me. However this album changes everything. Win Butler has become a truly great songwriter with lyrics and music that hits emotionally and ironic enough to allow multi listens. Being brought up in the suburbs and living with my two boys and wife in the suburbs I relate to Win's need to make sense of his past and future...it gets deep and makes me want to bawl my head off (hey it's tough here in the cultural wasteland) It is the Win show but his brother reveals kick-ass musical depth with his analog synths. In this day of Ipod shuffle it is amazing Arcade Fire has crafted an album that demands a full listen, songs blend into each other or oppose each other...it is a piece of art. My only complaints are Regine's lead vocals (they hurt my ears) and a little blandness at the 2/3 point but this is almost perfect. I've listened to 6 days straight and still can't get enough (I have a full 80 GB ipod that remains idle) and just bought two copies today to give to friends. Don't listen to naysayers...this is derivative blah blah ...this is a great album for the ages. Buy a copy buy two copies just listen finally to music that deserves to be listened to.

@ Frisko Up front, I adore Arcade Fire and have for years. Since I was born in 1985 I missed the post punk movement, but I have listened to a many band from that era. My father owns an independent record store so I’ve been listening to unusual and groundbreaking music since I was a child. I sort of resent your comment about if you “deeply care” about music Arcade Fire might not be the band for you. I’ve listened to a lot of music and seen hundreds of shows and Arcade Fire is different from any other “indie” band on the scene today. You have every right not to like them because music is personal unlike anything else; however, say it with grace. Understand that Arcade Fire speaks to me and others in a way you don’t understand, and it doesn’t make us music virgins who hasn’t heard influential bands from different movements. Arcade Fire definitely wear their influences on their sleeves, but they have a sound that is uniquely Arcade Fire.

@Frisko - Haha. "Sprawl II is a complete rip of MGMT." If that song doesn't sound like it's about to break into Blondie's "Heart of Glass" at any moment, I must be insane. Goes to show you, your revered "original" modern music (MGMT) is just as derivative as the bands you mock.

Who cares what anyone else thinks. This is a great, great record. Will be one of the best of the year. I'm of the sixties generation and I love it.

@Megan Bravo :)... I am a composer/song writer for over 10 years and seriously, Arcade Fire are on their own little cloud. All I can say is Thank you for the music!

This record is very forgettable. Songs without a tune, no real dynamics, did anyone bother to mix the thing? I don't get the hype at all..mediocre at best.


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