Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

It's very rare these days for a band to be able to achieve the kind of success and acclaim that Arcade Fire has, and not fall on their faces. Arcade Fire however, seems to be the exception to the rule as they've released their third great album in a row.

Most bands would have chosen to start their album with a straight-ahead rocker like the second track here, "Ready To Start," instead Arcade Fire chose to start off with the poignant title track. Here lead songwriter/singer Win Butler recounts his childhood in suburban Houston, TX, recalling how he learned to drive and how things just aren't what they once were. 'The Suburbs' carries on that theme throughout the entire record and never loses track of the plot, something that's difficult to do for an entire hour, as they do here.

So yes, the album is long at a little over an hour in length, but it rarely feels that way. This is one of those rare albums where you just can't bring yourself to skip a track. Every song is important to the overall "story" and they all flow into each other. Like a good mixtape 'The Suburbs' never lets you down, with varying song-styles and lyrics that are always on point.
Arcade Fire has been compared in the mainstream press as being a combination of Springsteen-esque lyrics and U2 style music. Although this is true of some of the songs to be found here, it's not always the way things sound. On a song like "Modern Man" you get the sense that Butler was inspired not by the Boss and Bono but by Neil Young, a style that's also used on songs like "Wasted Hours" and "Deep Blue." "Modern Man" is such a high point that the band has started using it as an encore at recent shows. In the song, Butler clearly feels a yearning for times gone by but realizes that it's not to be and "maybe when you're older will understand."

The type of lyrics Butler comes up with on this album really tell you a lot about the man, he's not rallying against suburbia, he's just saying it doesn't have to be the way it is. "Half Light II" with its haunting backing vocals by RĂ©gine Chassagne and propulsive backbeat might just be one of the bands greatest songs. A tale of going back home to where you grew up, only to find it totally changed is heartbreaking and with the coda of "One day they will see it's long gone," it's very easy to relate to.

The lyrics aren't the only reason this album is a success, there's the music that surrounds them as well. If the instrumentation seems a tad pedestrian at first, give it a few listens and you'll be able to discover new parts everytime you listen. Owen Pallett's ear for an amazing string arrangement really shines on this album, from the hyperactivity of "Empty Room" to the rocker "Month of May," this man obviously knows what he's doing. If you haven't heard his work as Final Fantasy or his most recent album 'Heartland' you owe it to yourself to do so if you find yourself as enamored with his string arrangements as I am.
As great as the rest of the album is, it's blown out of the water by the breathtaking "Sprawl II" with Chassagne taking center stage. Her voice is in top form here with lyrics to match. The first time I heard this song I got goosebumps when I heard the chorus and still do. "Living in the sprawl, the dead shopping malls, rise like mountains beyond mountains," is the perfect picture of the suburbs and its sometimes never ending boredom.

Needless to say I was not let down by this album. It might not have the immediacy of "Funeral" but it also doesn't have to over-orchestrated sound of "Neon Bible." It will make a great addition to anyone's music collection and I couldn't recommend it more to anyone who ever grew up in the suburbs, if you did, you'll find more than a few songs that you can readily relate to. Expect this to be at the top of my, and other critics, year end lists this winter.

Best Tracks:
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Modern Man
Half Light II (No Celebration)
Month Of May
Deep Blue

Oh and if you get the chance, PLEASE go and see this band in concert. I got the opportunity to see them last week and their energy and musical ability will blow you away.