Friday, July 30, 2010

Album Review: The Suburbs

Funeral, Arcade Fire's 2004 debut album, is a beautiful record that slowly builds up to the emotional catharsis of the sweeping "Rebellion (Lies)." The group's follow-up, 2007's Neon Bible, attempts that sort of catharsis every ten seconds or so, giving the listener a solid album that's a touch too melodramatic. I re-listened to both last week - Funeral was better than I remembered, Neon Bible was worse.

The Suburbs, due out next week, avoids the anthemic emotional affirmations of Funeral while also side-stepping the overwrought political sentimentalities of Neon Bible. It's a mess of contradictions - uplifting and despairing, a cry for present action and a nostalgic look at bygone times, a touch of childlike wonder mixed with mature cynicism.

It's also the most heavily conceptual of the band's three records. "I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band," frontman and songwriter Win Butler was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times interview, and this sort of aesthetic shows on The Suburbs. The peaks are perhaps not as high as Funeral or even Neon Bible - there are very few individual tracks that stand out to me - but the record as a totality is certainly an experience, and the sum of its parts adds up to be a far more satisfying whole.

The Suburbs certainly has something to say about just about everything. The album takes on the dull, alienating sprawl of modern America (one songs describes how "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains"). Butler tears into what he considers the drones of the corporate world, the 9-to-5 grind and the general lack of creativity or emotion in the bubble of parking lots and office buildings. But, at the same time, he also winkingly critiques his own fanbase, criticizing a youth culture that prizes apathy and enervation over any sort of sincere feelings or causes.

All this could be a drag, but The Suburbs is saved by two things. For one, the music is uniformly great. The pristine polish of Funeral has been replaced by an earthier, less refined kind of music, but with all the dense sonic layers we've come to expect from the band. The instrumentation is subtler, the hooks don't grab you immediately like their first two albums. But the songs stand on their own even without these hummable melodies; each track shifts and builds into something different, so that the album feels like an ebb and flow of hope and despair. If the melodies are slightly less catchy, I'll forgive the band for crafting a record whose tracks are meatier and more well-structured. The typical sweeping Arcade Fire anthem is still there (listen to "We Used to Wait") but we also have forays into a looser punk-type song ("The Month of May") and a foray into electronic music ("Sprawl II"). The music is less urgent, less likely to crash over your head and sweep you away. But I consider this the Arcade Fire growing up; the songs work even as they are more subdued.

Secondly, the preachiness of Neon Bible only rarely comes out on The Suburbs. A few tracks have some groaners ("This businessman, they drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would" and "They heard me singing and told me to stop / Quit those pretentious things and just punch the clock," just to name two). But, for the most part, The Suburbs is imbued with a delightful ambiguity. Butler criticizes the vapidity of modern life, but he also paints beautiful pictures of children playing through the night - of friendship and love. He finds beauty even in the suburbs, and some of the best tracks come from the voice of Regine Chassagne, who manages to perfectly evoke this childlike sense of awe and wonder.

The best thing about the Arcade Fire for me has always been that one can appreciate the group on several levels. If you want to listen closely to each lyric on The Suburbs and piece together some grand statement on 21st-century life in America, you can do that. If you want to listen carefully to the vast array of instruments and sounds that the group utilizes, you can do that. If you want to lay back, close your eyes, and let the sounds wash over you without listening closely, you can do that too. The group is great at evoking specific moods, at utilizing the perfect touch of a glockenspiel or a string solo to add a bit of emotional complexity in an unexpected place, and The Suburbs is no exception. As I mentioned, the album feels a bit more homegrown, a bit less like it came straight from the studio, but this is not a bad thing.

At 63 minutes, the album might run a little long, and it lags in the second half with a few tracks that are less than memorable. But there's nothing I can pinpoint as definitely excisable, and the album certainly doesn't feel bloated or excessive. Only time will tell if it holds up to repeated listenings or if there's tracks that I'll be yearning to skip. But for now, I'm just enjoying the experience. The group manages to put complexity and even ambiguity into songs that still are simple enough to appreciate as pure music.

The Suburbs ends, to quote that too-often used Eliot line, not with a bang, but a whimper. If Funeral ended in triumphant reconciliation, and Neon Bible ended with a heartwrenching emotional cry, The Suburbs slowly fades away into nothingness. The album is a tragedy, the story of characters constantly searching for beauty in the modern world and only partially finding it. But it's not the adolescent angsty tragedy of Neon Bible. The Arcade Fire has grown up on The Suburbs. This might not please everybody, but I think it's a necessary step.

With so much hype surrounding the world's biggest indie band, there's a chance that The Suburbs might not live up to its premature reputation. It's not a transcendent record, and there are a few spots that connect better than others. But, taken as a whole, it's a magnificent work, and certainly worth the time and money of any fan of Funeral.