Rockin' Our Turntable: Arcade Fire
By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 28, 2010 7:30PM
It's fair to say that of all the highly anticipated albums seeing release this summer, few have been looked forward to more than Arcade Fire's third full-length, The Suburbs. It's been seven years since the group stampeded through the ranks of indie rock with their debut LP Funeral and over three years since the follow-up Neon Bible. Add a headlining slot at this year's Lollapalooza and you've got yourself the recipe for the highest level of anticipation. And, ultimately, the band doesn't let us down, even if the record takes a few spins to sink in. But once it does, The Suburbs settles as a sprawling masterpiece that trumps Neon Bible even as it fails to reach some of the climactic heights of Funeral.
Reviews thus far have focused on the notion of looking back on adolescence, nostalgia - the Butler brothers have confirmed as much with it being based on their growing up outside of Houston, Texas - and that's certainly the overarching theme of the album. But just beneath that is a compelling sense of anxiety that, a layer that only adds to the album's complexity.
The album pulls a head fake on us right out of the gates with the mid-temp ragtime piano shuffle of the eponymous lead track that seems downright quaint until it gives way to a chorus of "Sometimes I can't believe it/I'm moving past the feeling." That song flows right into "Ready to Start," one of the album's few uptempo stompers, highlighted by synth chimes and a churning guitar riff while the narrator claims, "I would rather be alone/Then pretend I feel alright." The pulsating strum of "Modern Man" propels itself across the ocean of anxiety as "the clock keeps ticking" and "something don't feel right." "Rococo" and "Empty Room" start with frantic bursts of swirling strings. Adding to the anxiety are numerous references to fighting and war. In the opening minute of the album, Win's singing, "You always seemed so sure/One day we'd be fighting/In a suburban war." In the (aptly titled) "Suburban War," there's talk of division into tribes, a reference to the parting of ways with friends, one of the pains of growing up: "Now the music divides us into tribes/Choose your side, I'll choose my side."
Musically, some of the band's influences are on display even as they tinker with different styles. The bass groove that winds through "City With No Children" is something straight out of a U2 song, perhaps picked up on the band's stint opening for the megaultrasuperduperstars. A Springsteen influence also shines through: "Suburban War" wouldn't at all be out of place on that singer's Nebraska record. If there's a drawback to the album, it's a perceived lack of urgency, due in part to the fact it's so damn long. Spanning 16 tracks and clocking in at well over an hour, there are times that the album feels like it's starting to lag. So much of the record is mid-tempo that when "Month of May," the tenth track, kicks in with it's charging beat and crunching guitar, a beefier version of "(Antichrist Television Blues)," it's hard not to be jolted as Win remembers watching "the violent wind blow the wires away." On the album's penultimate track, the epic "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" which shuffles along driven by a slow disco beat and synth hits, Regine laments, "These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose/But late at night the feelings swim to the surface." Later, despite the uplifting melody, she sings out of despair, "Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there's no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights." The sprawl of the suburbs is bleak, indeed.
If pop culture has taught us one thing about the suburbs, it's that they can be a homogeneous, repressive place, that there's always something simmering just below the surface. And that's what The Suburbs does: it simmers, teasing us towards a point of catharsis that it never quite achieves. There's no unleashing like Funeral's "Wake Up" or "Rebellion (Lies)" or even Neon Bible's "No Cars Go." But it doesn't necessarily have to because that only plays in to the anxiety of the album, an anxiety underscored by its orchestral swirls, swells, and grooves. On the album, much like in life, sometimes there is no relief even as emotions simmer and swirl and rise to the surface, but never reaching the desired resolution. Ultimately, the anxiety goes hand-in-hand with the theme of growing up in the suburbs, of finding identity in a cookie cutter setting, and even looking back on that experience with the contradictory feelings of longing and regret. The album, as a whole, also shows a band willing to do a little searching of their own in terms of style but one that (not unlike R.E.M. on their third LP) is willing to push the sonic boundaries a little, to see where experimentation can take them while never quite abandoning their core sound. The end result is a record that's sort of, well, a sprawling mess but a beautiful one nonetheless.
The Suburbs is out August 2nd via Merge Records
Arcade Fire headlines Lollapalooza on Sunday, August 8, 8:30 p.m., Grant Park