Under Review: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Seven years might not seem like that long of a time, but the members of Arcade Fire are already looking back to their youth.  The Suburbs is the group’s third album since forming in 2003, and it’s bound to be quite polarizing.  The album is nearly 20 minutes longer than Funeral or Neon Bible, and while it’s loaded with great-sounding stuff, there’s no getting around the fact that this album is loaded with stuff.  While it features some of the band’s most varied material, The Suburbs features the most specific lyrical themes that Win Butler and company have conjured yet.  The album’s a song cycle about youth in the suburbs, and the lyrics hammer the associated stories quite strongly.  The rollicking title track opens the disc and sets the stage for some nostalgia, paranoia and despair.  It’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, and one of a few to feature some pleasant alt-country styling.  Other early highlights include “Modern Man” and “Rococo,” both of which explore the band’s familiar menace and doom with impressive results.

As the album progresses, the band slips into some of its more questionable habits.  One of the most notable of these is their penchant for multi-section songs.  Though not as elaborate as on Funeral, The Suburbs features three sets of paired songs: its title track, “Half Light” and “Sprawl.”  “Half Light I” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” are in the center of the album’s rather cumbersome middle section, uncomfortably lodging themselves between standouts “City With No Children” and “Suburban War.”  Just after that, the chugging “Month Of May” stakes its claim as one of The Suburbs’ best contributions to the Arcade Fire’s catalogue.  It’s a propulsive rocker that gives the album’s latter half some much-needed kick.  Aside from a brief reprise of the title track, the album closes with “Sprawl (Flatland)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”  The second half is led by Régine Chassagne, in a kind of Siouxsie Sioux mode.  Régine is a grossly underused lead vocalist, and “Sprawl II” is an overdue showcase.

The Suburbs is a typical example of a band not quite knowing what to do with itself.  Few of its songs suggest the staying power as those on Funeral and Neon Bible.  It could be that each of the Arcade Fire’s albums is a grower, but with the sheer amount of material to take in from this effort, the mere notion of listening to this album until something sticks is exhausting.  Call it their Sandinista! if you must, but The Suburbs would’ve greatly benefitted from some stricter quality control.  The Arcade Fire, despite any missteps, will remain a cornerstone of today’s indie music scene.  However, I fear that this status has gone to their heads, and this pleasant but scattershot album supports that.  Suburban living is a fitting analogy for this album: on the surface, it’s pristine and attractive, but up close it’s just a lot of ticky-tacky.

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~ by E. on August 2, 2010.

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