CD Review: Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”

Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”
(Merge Records, August 3, 2010)
Review by Adam Perry for Westword

Montreal’s Arcade Fire, whose Grammy-nominated 2004 debut LP Funeral was the indie hit of the last decade, throws somewhat of a curveball on its new, 16-cut album The Suburbs. 30-year-old Win Butler earnestly—and patiently—comments on modern America and his band’s rapid, meteoric stardom on the new LP, whereas the Texas-bred singer-guitarist, in his early 20s when Arcade Fire exploded, rose to fame by commanding the sprawling band’s dynamic, Clash-esque concerts and ecstatic/anthemic songs as if the world was on fire.

At times on 2007’s Neon Bible, it was obvious Arcade Fire put too much of the group’s understandably high-pressure sophomore-album energy into crafting more change-the-world, sing-along anthems in the vein of Funeral (only hipper and darker); The Suburbs conversely bursts with dissimilar-but-connected ideas and features almost double the number of tracks on Funeral. Here, Arcade Fire takes its time, almost the way its role models The Clash did on Sandanista!, to tell a story—and convey the band’s simultaneously condemning and patriotic worldview—by traversing whatever musical styles or instrumentation necessary. The hour-long new LP’s title track, which opens The Suburbs, is particularly antithetical to Neon Bible’s intermittent self-consciousness. “The Suburbs” highlights Butler’s confession “Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling,” and it’s a mid-tempo swinger not unlike Band of Horses’ “The General Specific.” Along with the light-handed, heavy-hearted “Modern Man,” “The Suburbs” succeeds in thwarting anyone who thought Arcade Fire would begin its long-awaited third album with forcibly churning wailers like “Black Mirror” and “Keep the Car Running.”

Arcade Fire reportedly had more than 30 diverse tracks written for The Suburbs before whittling it down to 16—and engaging in a complicated recording process that first sent the tracks to vinyl and then played the vinyl back into a computer, making the whole effort sound deep and warm as vinyl on any format. Thus, blanket statements about the music of The Suburbs are hard to come by; however, the one constant is the ’80s. While the members of Arcade Fire burned their childhoods with Funeral and then exposed their youthful skeletons on Neon Bible, The Suburbs unabashedly returns Butler and Co. to the decade in which they grew up.  From the bent guitar effects to the SST-style drive of songs like “Month of May” to the ever-present Cure-esque synths that pop up in nearly every song, The Suburbs is a testament the underrated musical range and poignancy of the ’80s. Not to mention Arcade Fire’s rampant music-geekdom.

If “Windowstill” was Neon Bible’s continuation of “Neighborhood #4 (Kettles),” then “Suburban War” is the next chapter in that emotional suburban story, and an impressive suite of its own—one that more directly reveals Arcade Fire’s classic-rock influences. “Suburban War” begins with an XTC (or Roger McGuinn)-style guitar intro and then—with lyrics like “let’s go for a drive / see the town tonight / there’s nothing to do / but I don’t mind when I’m with you”—unsubtly hints at what Bruce Springsteen did best as a young man, i.e. find transcendence in North America’s paved-over prairie. Indeed, “In the suburbs I / I learned to drive / people told me we would never survive” sounds like a line right out of “Born to Run,” and throughout “Suburban War” and other tracks Arcade Fire references musical themes cemented decades ago by U2 (“Half Light II”) and New Order (“Sprawl II”), among other ’80s heavies.


[above image courtesy Vanity Fair]

To lambast Butler, along with his multi-talented wife Régine Chassagne—who profoundly shines on The Suburbs after she was just a beautiful echo on Neon Bible—for wearing their influences on their “pop star army fatigues” sleeves is just wrong, although several major newspapers have already begun to fight that losing battle. Everyone steals from everyone in order to say what they’ve got to say, and that dates back to Dylan and all the immortal folk thieves before him, which even includes Leonardo DaVinci, who famously asserted, “A great artist takes what he needs.”

Sure, The Suburbs’ slow-burning ballads, driving near-punk rockers and ambitious suites are seeped in the long-effective sounds of Arcade Fire’s heroes—not to mention the best of the band’s own catalog and, as always, Owen Pallett’s heaven-drenched string arrangements. But brilliant modern musical theft is more like building a visionary new house, one that hopefully has the power to “shout through the suburbs,” out of recycled materials. Knowing Arcade Fire, to quote a line from “Rococo,” they’ll “build it up just to burn it back down.”

3 thoughts on “CD Review: Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”

  1. Suburban War I have felt sounds so much like the Byrds material (12 String) that I visioned “My Back Pages” as a cousin to “Suburban War”.
    This Arcade Fire song could be right from the 60’s folk-psychedlic era.
    I wonder if Roger McGuinn has heard the song it is so wonderful.
    Another comparision is to The Animals guitar work on “It’s My Life” (can’t remember the guitar player’s name). Even some similarity to the heavier Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. All the above are in my top 10 favourites of all time.

    1. Len, those comparisons are all really interesting – and spot on. Butler and Co. are obviously students of their craft, not to mention big-time music geeks, so it’s not surprising that – whether consciously or unconsciously – they reference classic rock in their songs. Although, “Funeral” was singularly brilliant and was hard to compare to anything else, except maybe a little Talking Heads.

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