July 25, 2010

Music Review: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The suburbs: characterless, soul-crushing, boring – the kid that grows up there dreams only of one day moving to the big city. A place to pine to escape from, curse your parents for making you live in and spend the majority of your free time day-dreaming about getting out of. Time stands still, hours last forever but it’s still your home, it’s what you know and it shapes you, no matter how hard you try to shake it off.

"The Suburbs" captures this paradox beautifully; inspired by key band members Win and Will Butler’s upbringing in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. Win describes it as sounding like “Depeche Mode meets Neil Young”, which isn’t far off at times, especially on Half Light II (No Celebration). Penultimate track Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) even has an almost disco feel reminiscent of The Gossip, albeit on Valium. Elsewhere the sound is quintessential Arcade Fire both lyrically and musically.

Arcade Fire are coming closer to renewing the promise they showed on their Grammy Award-winning debut album Funeral, which shot the Montréal band into the international arena. For some, Neon Bible was something of a disappointment. The album had its share of great tracks: the blistering opener, "Keep The Car Running", the gorgeous, melancholic ache of "My Body Is A Cage" and a respectable reworking of "No Cars Go" from their first EP. It was energetic but, at times, stodgy and moreover sounded dangerously close to a Springsteen tribute album, losing the sound that made them unique on their first two releases. It was an album made by a band that had just started playing in large venues and festivals in front of crowds of thousands and had lost the intimacy of playing in small French Canadian clubs.

The Suburbs does more than correct this. It will not only appeal to fans of Neon Bible but also appease those who missed the intimacy and confessional quality of the first releases. It recaptures that melancholic yet deliriously optimistic bent that Funeral expressed so well, with its soaring orchestration, heartache and nostalgia of unrealized dreams half-remembered. The Springsteen influence is not entirely lost however, and is present on tracks such as "Empty Room" - which retains that pulsating, racing heartbeat of New Jersey rock - and the title track with its lyrics “In the suburbs I, I learned to drive, And you told me we’d never survive, Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving” reminiscent not only of The Boss but perhaps of Terence Malik’s Badlands.

Singer Win Butler again leads on the majority of the songs but there is more interplay between him and spouse Régine Chassagne. The effect is taut and raw, like pulling on both ends of a string at the same time: a tug-of-war in miniature. Interestingly, for The Suburbs, Arcade Fire mastered each track on the album onto a dubplate and then transferred it back to digital so that the CD and digital versions of the album sound like the vinyl.

This is Arcade Fire at their best, bringing together what was good about both of their previous albums. At sixteen songs long it may be a little unwieldy but this is a band who have rediscovered what makes them great and aren't letting go anytime soon.

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