Second Opinion: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

It’s tough being famous. It’s even tougher when it’s for a good reason; say you made one of the best albums of the past decade and had to follow-up on that feat with all of the music world watching you. You’re still young, you’ve still got ideas, and there’s an election coming up, so you decide to go for the Hail Mary: the political album. Now, you know, you know, these never work, but you’ve got to remain relevant since you’ve already made a perfect, resolute statement on the nature of death on post-adolescence, so you might as well go for it.

The people let out a huge “meh”, appreciate the bold move, but wished you’d make another one like your debut.

Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.

It’s tough for Arcade Fire, a band who have the terrible burden of being too good too fast. Everyone likes Neon Bible, but everyone loves Funeral. How can you not? Well, if you were hoping that they’d take the hint of the general complaints about Neon Bible and go back to what they do best, uplifting songs about fatality (think Flaming Lips, but baroque instead of psychedelic), you would be wrong. The Suburbs takes one giant leap from Neon Bible and goes for a Springsteenian epic about suburban life, childhood, getting older, and ultimately, living to become something greater than yourself. Oh, and there’s more synths.

This isn’t to say The Suburbs isn’t Arcade Fire, it most assuredly is, but this is a much less ornate version of them. The songs are typically, if not almost always, based around a single melody, the guitars are placed at the forefront, and the baroque instrumentation they’ve been known for is instead relegated to a backing position. However the star of the show, the main center of the album, is easily the bass, which drives every song. It’s by the bass of William Butler that each song is given it’s direction and it’s especially apparent on tracks like “Ready to Start” and “City With No Children”.

However, even if they’re usually in the background, the violins, cellos, accordions, and such all still play a pivotal role. The album sounds much more like Funeral than Neon Bible did, with “Empty Room”‘s swirling strings and oppressing drone sounding particularly familiar. “Half Light I” has the feint reminder of “Haiti”, “Wasted Hours” sounding much like “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” (or “The Year Without Light”), and “Sprawl (Flatland)” sounding like Win Butler’s version of “In the Backseat”. By and large, these are songs that are the highlights of the album, and the support given to them by the strings and other non-rock instruments are pivotal to their thrust.

The album flows extremely well, quite a feat for it being easily their longest album yet. The way such radically different songs like “Sprawl (Flatland)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” or “The Suburbs” and “Ready to Start” flow into each other is incredible, and the connections lyrically are easier to pick out since most of the time they are much more literal than Funeral‘s heavily thematic nature. The themes present are ones that have been explored quite a bit before, the concept of a suburban war being referenced on Neon Bible more than once, but rather than grate, it actually makes the album feel like it’s a culmination of the themes presented previously on the previous albums. It’s a rather contradictory thing that fits in with the rest of the odd irony, like the fact that most of the songs sound similar to previous ones without sounding anything like any other album they’ve done when taken as a whole.

The point is is that this is an excellent album, plain and simple. Sure, it’s not as good as Funeral, but what is? Funeral is a perfect album, a rare product of it’s turbid environment that stays relevant even now. Not many albums can claim this. The Suburbs is not silently brilliant in the way that Funeral is but it’s not stuck in it’s time period like Neon Bible is, an album that will never be able to escape the time that it was created in. What The Suburbs is is an album which is obviously great but not obviously terrific, which it very much is. It just takes time to realize it because we have to constantly compare it to the previous efforts by one, if not the biggest, band in indie music, and it’s a bit unfair to the album. Arcade Fire worked hard on this brilliant, well-realized album; just because a T-bone isn’t prime rib doesn’t make it any less delicious, and just because The Suburbs isn’t Funeral doesn’t make it any less fantastic.

by Trevor “Suburban Soldier” Johnson

1 Comment

  1. 08/16/2010: Second Opinions « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Second Opinion: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs, by Trevor Johnson […]

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