themusicconnoisseur

Archive for the ‘Album Reviews’ Category

It’s Time to Move to the Suburbs!

In Album Reviews, Songs I Think Are Pretty Great on 08/05/2010 at 1:07 am

or at least snatch it up at the no-excuses price of $3.99 from Amazon right now.

Oh, and that’s The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, in case you missed the allusion.

I have no way of providing ample background for an album greeted with so much anticipation. There are thousands of opinions about this band and this new album all over the internet which could provide it more context than I am able to give.

This I will say: you owe it to yourself and to everyone you love and to the messed-up world we live in to give this album a listen. Find it somewhere and listen to it. This is one of the few albums I’ve listened to this year that truly forms a whole, start to finish. Even more so than the two (life-changing) albums that came before, The Suburbs relies upon continuity to tell a complete story.

I first heard the singles released a month or two ago and was nonplussed at hearing mood and restraint at a band I had most associated with over-the-top enthusiasm and orchestral indie bombast (re: “Rebellion (Lies),” “Wake Up,” “Keep the Car Running” – listen to those if you get the chance). Indeed, of all AF’s discography, this new album most discourages the junkie fix of immediate catharsis. Not to say that such a fix is bad; its potency first thrust the band into the spotlight. This band carries a heavy mantle, whether it chooses to or not. It sort of asked to, I suppose, by dwelling on Important Themes and using Big Moments to Challenge the Religio-Political Status Quo of Modern America and Unite its hearers in a Community of … well, you get the point.

Anyway, it seems that all this pressure is beginning to show. Stretched to the limit with the dark heartbreak of  the last album, Neon Bible, and the relentless touring that followed, the band took a break and the album that has followed the hiatus seems to reflect the band’s newfound grasp on the world they actually live in. Where the band previously raged and thundered with all the adrenaline of a revolutionary hurling a Molotov cocktail, they no longer seem quite as interested in holding a light for the masses to follow. In The Suburbs, they accomplish the much more difficult task of recognizing that the darkness and greed they once spurned have surreptitiously grabbed tiny footholds all over their souls. It’s the difference between a naive, confident country in 2003 (when their first album was released) and a humbled country in 2010 that has realized that one man’s justice is often another man’s injustice, that even the feel-good vibes of electing a charismatic, banner-waving president can’t coalesce a deeply fractured nation of citizens crouching in ideological foxholes. It’s the difference between a youthful, idealistic 20-year-old and someone ten years older, still looking for a sense of home – and it makes no difference if that someone has achieved the American Dream or not; the longing still hides around corners or behind closed doors.

Once, it was “us” against “them,” the new kids against the materialistic and soulless, but Arcade Fire aren’t kids anymore and have begun to suspect that they are closer to resembling “them” than “us” anymore. “Sometimes I can’t believe it – I’m moving past the feeling again,” sings Win Butler on the haunting title track that bookends the album in two very different forms: its first incarnation is almost jaunty, but by the time the band gets to the last note of the 16-track, no-filler journey, the tone is mournful. Rekindling the passion that once moved us is getting harder and harder. In one of my favorite lyrics, we sadly and wisely are advised not to throw stones at easy targets like wealthy televangelists: “You never trust a millionaire / Quoting the Sermon on the Mount / I used to think I was not like them / But I’m beginning to have my doubts” (“City with No Children”).

In this spirit of self-reflection and dealing with loss, Butler and crew begin to retrace their steps and reflect on their pasts with honesty. “I would rather be alone,” Win admits,”than pretend I feel alright” (“Ready to Start”). The shallow, impermanent suburbs where we grew up, the “towns they built to change” (“The Sprawl I”), are cold reminders of the solidity that still eludes us. It’s easy to reminisce about the beautiful “wasted hours” of aimless childhood without recognizing that even now “we’re still kids in buses longing to be free” (“Wasted Hours”).

Darkness – from the dim early evening to rich midnight – becomes a repeated theme, a symbol of escape and nostalgia. This is never so clear than in the album’s crux, a story told two very different ways (“The Sprawl I (Flatland)” and “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”). The unnamed protagonists of the songs escape into the suburbs as the light fails, attempting to make out the numbers of the house where they once lived in the darkness. They run from the cops, trying to get away from the omnipresent bland illumination of miles and miles of the suburban sprawl, as in the song Regine Chassagne defiantly repeats, “I need the darkness. Someone, please, cut the lights!”

The ideas are deeply rooted and profoundly, if somewhat repetitively, expressed. The repetition, however, is what lends the album so much strength as a unit. Please, don’t try to listen to this album piecemeal. It’s not perfect by any means; some songs are lyrically and musically inferior to others. And although there are certainly some tremendous songs on the record, only in context does each one finds its voice. The first time you listen to this album, listen to it in full. You might even go somewhere like this website and follow the lyrics. This isn’t music that will grab you by the ear and drag you around for a few days before disappearing; it depends as much on the ideas “within” as the music “without” and once the two join forces in your psyche, all else will give way.

Impressively, Arcade Fire continue to expand territory with this newest addition. As their debut, Funeral‘s sheer spirit and charisma won the day; Neon Bible darkened the sonic palette and preached against the hollow commercialism that can pervade even what we count as holy; and The Suburbs find the band off of the soapbox, a bit wistful, humbled, but just as intensely ready to escape into the freedom of the night. That may not make for an album with the world-conquering, assured moments of the previous two, but perhaps it is able to connect at a different level, to each listener’s own regrets and unfulfilled wishes of adulthood, and to urge each to heed the call:

“Hey. Put the cell phone down for a while / In the night there is something wild / Can you hear it breathing?” (“Deep Blue”)

Lincoln

(PS: I meant to write a short informational post which I’ll jot off after I post this. You don’t just say no when the muse comes a-callin’! In reward for making you endure this crushingly long post, I will relent on my demand to make you listen to the album only as a whole, in hopes it will inspire you to do just that. Here’s just one of my favorites –

“We Used to Wait”

We Used to Wait

Lyrics:

I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met
The times had already changed

So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart
I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last
Hope that something pure can last

It may seem strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

We used to wait
We used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait
All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

Ooooo we used to wait
Sometimes it never came
Ooooo we used to wait
Sometimes it never came
Ooooo we used to wait
Still moving through the pain

I’m gonna write a letter to my true love
I’m gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table
I wanna walk again
Gonna move through the pain

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last
Hope that something pure can last

Ooooo we used to wait
Sometimes it never came
Ooooo we used to wait
Sometimes it never came
Ooooo we used to wait
Still moving through the pain

We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
And now they’re screaming
“Sing the chorus again!”

I used to wait for it
I used to wait for it
Hear my voice screaming
“Sing the chorus again!”

Wait for it!
Wait for it!
Wait for it!