July 27, 2010

Album Review: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Arcade Fire have confronted the most visceral of topics over the course of the band's young career. Their 2004 debut, Funeral, addressed visions of mortality amid game changing indie rock anthems that transcended into huge mainstream notoriety. Three years later on Neon Bible, the orchestral clan once again brought us into another area of darkness -- This time scouring the seedy underbelly of misguided faith, politics and fame. Now, Win Butler and company are heading into more mundane and familiar territory by venturing into The Suburbs on their latest album -- but the results are anything but and mark the most prosperous evolution yet for the Montreal act.

The Suburbs is Arcade Fire's most lengthiest album to date, with 16 songs clocking in at over an hour. In a day in age where albums are chalk full of singles for an attention deficit generation, it's a rare fete when each and every track has purpose, meaning and engages its audience. In short, it's a concept album filled with haunting images about the collapse of the white picket fence surrounding the perfect home with a two car garage, happily married couples and their 2.4 children. Given the shifting currents of life as we know it these days, The Suburbs is essentially a sign of the times.

Much of the success heard on The Suburbs can be credited to lead man, Win Butler, being at the top of his game as a lyricist and offering a stark and realistic vision of suburban life and desperation. Like his kindred spirit and songwriting hero, Bruce Springsteen, his version of middle-class life is portrayed through dark decay, secrets, denial and anything but a perfect life despite what appearances look like on the outside. The first and title track is a jangly indie folk tune that conjures up the images of driving through a suburban sprawl, noting how everything more or less looks the same. A few months ago, AwkwardSound ran a feature predicting the end result of some of the summer's most anticipated releases. At that time, only "The Suburbs" and "Month of May" were available to base a preemptive evaluation upon. It was noted how rather plain the former sounded, but now in the context of the album as a whole, it's apparent this is precisely the point of it. In Win Butler's neighborhood, the dreary monotony personifies the surroundings. The following track, "Ready to Start," picks up the pace as an uptempo number that combines chilling new wave with the heartbeat of "Keep the Car Running." The song peers into the life of an everyday white collar man who fears his fellow colleagues will literally suck him dry of his own blood. This conflict between man and lifestyle is consistent throughout the album, as "The Modern Man" is Butler's story of the faceless employee who sees no reward nor purpose to his job. The frankest moment to carry on this theme, however, is the apocalyptic hopeless masterpiece, "Suburban War." It's Springsteen's Nebraska plugged and reminds us that no matter how much the places we grew up remain the same, it's easy to become a stranger within your own hometown.

Escaping the entrapment of suburbia is another persistent theme on The Suburbs and it's where Win's partner in life and music, Régine Chassagne, shines. In "Empty Room," a surge of scorched strings puts a new spin on shoegaze as Régine lusts to find something meaningful and fulfilling among the unknown and outer limits. "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" brings a brash electro-pop chipper to Arcade Fire's abundant palette, as Régine's soft, delicate voice cries out to flee from countless shopping malls and a pedestrian life. Thematics aside, it's refreshing to hear Arcade Fire drawing inspiration from uncharted genres. It proves that despite these influences having been around for decades, there's always a way to personalize them for your own takings. Conclusively, if you're looking to find a flaw in The Suburbs, there really aren't any whichever way you break the album down. Even the "weakest" tracks (which could very well match the best on any other album's) serve a utility in breathing life into this body of work. "Month of May" for instance is a punked out rockabilly track with no real identity, yet it adds a welcome zest towards the latter end of the album. Meanwhile, "Rococo" is a bombastic orchestral pop number that shows Arcade Fire haven't completely lost touch with the energy found in Funeral.

A review on the BBC said The Suburbs bests Radiohead's milestone OK Computer album in greatness. While comparing the two bands would just be lazy criticism (and albeit, silly, since each band represents entirely different creative identities) it must be said that where OK Computer confronted the paranoia of a dawning new millennium and technology, The Suburbs shows us that a decade later, the most terrifying aspect of life today is not what lies within a computer chip but rather the despair confined inside the human heart. The Suburbs permanently cements Arcade Fire as something more than a small time indie rock band that exploded out of nowhere. In this generation-defining opus, they show the world that simplicity and success does not necessarily translate to the betterment of ourselves. Arcade Fire challenged themselves to bring their music to an entirely different level, and it's sheer genius that they've managed to do so by getting lost in The Suburbs.

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs will be released August 3, 2010 on Merge Records.

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