Monday, August 16, 2010

Album Review: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (4.5/5)

During a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was intrigued by an architectural piece on the suburbs. It featured a model of a typical suburban home on a green lawn with a street out front and then used mirrors on all sides to replicate the house infinitely in all directions. It was an obvious but very effective critique on the soulless replication of suburban fa├žade.

The Suburbs, the third album from the Montreal-based 7-piece Arcade Fire, is infused with that special type of youthful angst that the suburbs are adept at producing: an unholy blend of rage and boredom. As a former suburbanite myself, I could recognize this, although I wouldn't say relate, as I was neither angry nor bored as a child. However, I too grew up in a house built in the ‘70s--just like the ones “The Suburbs” says will one day fall.

The album is out the gate with a very promising beginning. The title track sets the theme from the start with a lovely player-piano type melody over a chugging piano, guitar and strings background. “You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting a suburban war,” sings Win Butler. “But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored.” “Ready to Start” plunges deeper into the suburban abyss, with layers of guitar propelling the ominous melody. The band uses vampire imagery to describe the “business men” who want to drink their blood “like the kids in art school said they would.”

Although the band has cited Depeche Mode and Neil Young as influences on this album, “Modern Man” sounds like Springsteen with its warm, driving guitar melody. “City of No Children” sounds also sounds Springsteen-influenced. “Rococo” has that big, deep sound like a lot of the songs from their last album, Neon Bible, developing further as the song progresses and the band adds more layers of sound. Short and sweet “Empty Room” bristles with energy and boasts the highest BPM of any song here. It also features both Win Butler and his wife Regine Chassagne doing joint vocal duty.

The album’s first half closes with the two-part composition “Half Light.” “Half Light I” slowly builds dramatic tension with grand musical layers in classic Arcade Fire form. Then “Half Light II (No Celebration)” follows with a darker new wave feel. The Depeche Mode influence is obvious on the guitar-driven tune enhanced with synthesizer touches.

“Suburban War” is a quiet opening to the album’s second half. It begins with hazy memories of youth (“I remember when you cut your hair; I never saw you again”). Not content to plod along in this vein, the song takes some dramatic, heightened twists. Punky “Month of May” like “Empty Room” also ramps up the pace, reminding me of Violent Femmes. Like most of the songs here, it provides lyrical references to “the kids,” although the autobiographical nature of the album makes it clear these are not the kids of today but from the band’s youth (and the band itself).

“Wasted Hours” has a plodding guitar melody enhanced to deep sonic saturation with synth effects. This is the boredom side of suburban angst, evoked as it is with such a beautiful melody (“endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead”). “Deep Blue” is another gorgeous melody, riding on deep, rough guitars and the purer sounds of synths and pianos. It’s this contrast of grit and shine that marks a lot of these songs…and really the suburbs themselves as well. Dark synths underpin “We Used to Wait,” another Depeche Mode-ish song. The song builds a lot of anticipation without much release. Perhaps that is the point.

The second half of the album also ends with a two-parter: “Sprawl.” “Sprawl I (Flatlands)” lays the suburban angst on a little too thick. Yes, suburban youth can be lonely, but this song is a bit much. Sings Butler, “took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we used to stay.” “Stay?” He’s not even going to credit his suburban childhood as place to “live?” Apparently not since, “It was the loneliest day of my life.” “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a more enjoyable affair—a bright, synth-based pop song. Chassagne’s airy vocal is the sole voice this time. A coda to the opening title track ends the album with an appropriate bookend.

Apparently inspired by Win and Will Butlers’ upbringing in suburban Houston, The Suburbs is much more a concept album than the band’s vivid 2004 debut, Funeral, or its darker 2007 follow-up. Although the concept gets a bit heavy handed, particularly on closing duo “Sprawl,” it serves to provide an interesting thematic thread through these songs, which deliver as much musical variety as we’ve heard from the band.

Best: The Suburbs, Ready to Start, Half Light II (No Celebration), Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Wasted Hours, Modern Man, Month of May, Deep Blue

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