“The Suburbs” – ‘Arcade Fire’ [Joint Review]
It’s been three years, now. Three, uneventful years between “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs” – a true test of loyalty for some, and a chance to waver for others. ‘Arcade Fire‘ has certainly tested what little patience there is left…
But can we honestly say that it was worth the wait? That’s where opinions get a little hazy and a tad flustered. For the diehards, this is a must-purchase. But for the newcomers, it mightn’t be as sweet: this isn’t a real fence-sitter of an album. I found myself pulled onto the negative:
Those of you not already familiar with “Arcade Fire”, formed back in ’03 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, have obviously not felt the repercussions of their impact several years ago. The band consists of [now] ‘Win Butler’ [vocals, guitar, piano], ‘Régine Chassagne’ [vocals, accordion, keyboards, hurdy gurdy, drums], ‘Richard Reed Parry’ [bass, guitar], ‘William Butler’ [vocals, guitar], ‘Sarah Neufeld’ [violin], ‘Jeremy Gara’ [drums], and ‘Tim Kingsbury’ [bass]. This all-star cast has delivered superlative music to a wide fan-base, and has really set the bar for music hailing from Canada ever since its inception. With their unique style pigeonholed in indie-rock, with hints of orchestral influences, band-comparisons to go on are the likes of ‘The Besnard Lakes’.
And fans, well: you guys can expect the unexpected…
“The Suburbs” reaffirms the fact that ‘Arcade Fire’ can still remain unpredictable; all three albums embody different contingencies, different styles, different flavours all of their very own. Perhaps this is part of the attraction. My introduction to the ‘Fire’ was with their follow-up, first, “Neon Bible”, a well-strung, pessimistic outburst of dark integrity. I expected “Funeral” – their debut – to be even darker, but found an unexplainable repulsion towards all of its tracks. Eventually I abandoned it in favour of “Neon Bible” – every time I listen, I fall in love with it again. There’s either a new aspect, or a misheard-lyric expunged in place of the actual word, or meaning intended.
‘Arcade Fire’ has that effect on you: a love-hate relationship, like an adolescent-crush you just can’t quench. And our crushes never die: it’s just the parts around it that do.
My offhand opinion is that “The Suburbs” – other than the fact it was not what I was expecting – is somewhat disconnected with what might be considered ‘Arcade Fire’-context. I was expecting epic at every corner: more often than not, however, I was met with disappointment. I’m reminded of the much-anticipated unfaithful-follow-up album of the year, “The Crystal Axis”, from ‘Midnight Juggernauts’. Perhaps stardom has finally got to ‘Arcade Fire’ as well?
“The Suburbs” seems preoccupied instead with quantity instead of quality.
My partner may allude to the fact that “The Suburbs” is perhaps, overly generous. It is particularly long – by any standard – marveling over an hour with sixteen-tracks. It disparages any hope of a single-vinyl edition in favour of a double-LP box-set. So collectors, expect to fork out millions.
With that said I feel much of the wait, hyped with epic-expectation, publicity, reviews, interviews and so forth, delivers something below expectation, but still above the bar of standard. “The Suburbs” is a grower, and like all ‘Arcade Fire’. There is no real neutral gray in between. I feel like sitting on the fence, but just can’t get out of the negative-rut; “… it’s always easier to criticise,” says my father – “… bag the shit out of ‘em,” say my friends – “… three-and-a-half stars,” says The Age…
It is not to say that some tracks don’t deliver, those that do are thoroughly enjoyable. It’s just…
Some are real filling, while some are real fillers. I find the characteristics of “Funeral” and “Neon Bible” have been mishmashed together in some sort of opto-pessimistic atmosphere. Real oil and water kind-a stuff. Remembering back to “Funeral”, where we had “Neighborhood”, parts I, II, III & IV, “The Suburbs” follows suit in much the same manner, with track-couplets like “Half Light I” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, “Sprawl (Flatland)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, and “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (Continued)”. And then some. Self-contained titles are abundant – it feels they wrote so much between “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs” that they’ve just splurged it all out.
Here-in lies the rub: I always turn it off before I get to the finale. I either get disinterested, distracted, occupied with work or email: even as I write this, my attention occasionally flicks back to the television, the sunlight streaming in the lounge, my compulsive finger-biting. Maybe it’s the coffee I poured all over my cereal this morning; I’m hyperactive.
My head is swimming in caffeine.
And it’s a real shame, because the finale is perhaps the epitome of all climaxes that “The Suburbs” has to offer. It rivals the overtly happy-bouncy opening, and tosses in some fantastic eighties-synth in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” which I just f—king love! And I think the final track, “The Suburbs (Continued)”, is absolutely soy-perb. It embodies what I want, overall. The “Arcade Fire” I fell in love with – undertones of string, touches of top-hat.
Too short, too sweet, over before it even had a chance to grow into something gnarly and wonderfully Gothic. The opening track, “The Suburbs” [...] is a gentle introduction to the entire album; a striking contrast. Nothing particularly memorable, no lyrics that grab me. No exploding crescendo. Bit long: 5:15. Everything is leveled at a steady pace, and it reminds me of ‘Eskimo Joe’. And no, I don’t know why; maybe it’s the piano?
Things really only pick up five tracks in, at “Empty Room”. Fast-paced action, thrilling strings, a vocal duet, a tumbling crash into understated chorus, a ravishing solo here, a dramatic violin there. Rather short-lived at 2:52. “Half Light I” sees the second beginning of a track-couplet, with ‘Régine Chassagne’ on vocals. An interesting shift from a male-orientated beginning. It really isn’t until we hit “Half Light II (No Celebration)” straight after, that out comes wisp-like currents of synth. Together with bass, guitar, it all congeals into a creepy science-fiction-esque accompaniment “Arcade Fire”-style, and it has to be one of my favourites.
“Month Of May”, “Wasted Hours”, “Deep Blue”, these tracks just sort of trickle out afterward in a resounding aftershock of “Half Light II”, but aren’t nearly as effective. Their attitudes might seem downtrodden, but really aren’t successfully pulled off. “We Used To Wait” has this fantastic piano-opening, slowly bludgeoned and dissolved to death with the inclusion of everything else. When the synth finally creeps through at the minute-mark, it’s subdued and then non-existent after twenty-seconds.
There is a real sense that “The Suburbs” is a battle between the acoustic elements of old “Arcade Fire”, and its potentiality to involve synth [among other new directions], which is really understated. And it’s a shame, because I think it weaves so well into their style. While it could, conceivably, alter it beyond recognition, it probably wouldn’t be a turn for the worse, in my opinion. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “The Suburbs (Continued)” – I’ve already droned on about.
New directions, new directions? “The Suburbs”, I feel, is another play-it-safe album. Rather than get bogged down in new direction, they’ve fought the good fight, stayed the course, and kept the faith. I haven’t been as eager to hop onto the bandwagon of follow-ups this year as I might have done last – maybe my expectations are just too high? But these bands were given the opportune amount of time to finely tune and craft their masterpieces. Look at ‘Tame Impala’. I waited years for their debut, and it was fantastic.
I have waited a long while for “Arcade Fire” to blow my mind. And I’m finally delivered an omelette enjoyable – but more often than not – simply palatable. It may be easier to criticise – true. But I think it’s just as easy to sing praises like a fandom-addled listener looking for daylight in all the wrong places. We’re not falling into any abyss just yet, but we certainly are spiraling an event horizon of some sort or another…
Reviewers Pick: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Stand-out Tracks: “Empty Room”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, “We Used To Wait”, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “The Suburbs (Continued)”
The Enantiomorphic God