Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Mercury) 02/08/2010
August 9, 2010 by Dan Nelson
For the average band a 16 track release would mean more filler, but surely this would not be the case with Canada’s finest export would it?
It’s been 5 years since they presented their all conquering debut ‘Funeral’, which turned a morbid theme like death into something thrilling and triumphant, wiping the board for end of year awards lists in the process.
Second album, Neon Bible, made them a force to be reckoned with. It featured a darker sound and religious themes, as well as the impending doom trademark. Something that could have sounded weighty and morose, yet in their hands still managed to retain the urgency of their former release, thus stretching their music template further.
On their latest release, curtain raiser and title track ‘The Suburbs’ is an upbeat baroque style opener. Piano and acoustic refrains combine as strings swell in the background, setting the scene as Win recalls his experiences growing up. This recollection of Win’s youth is the constant theme on the record and the track itself provides an engrossing start, if not what we are used to.
‘Ready to Start’ is standard Arcade Fire fare; drum over country vocals, with twanging guitars. The only surprise is the addition of synths and a softer vocal from Win. Its driving melody is a not a too distant cousin of ‘Keep the Car Running’, but what threatens to engulf the listener doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights you would expect and there is still no sign of the rest of the band.
It is a fixture that dominates the duration of the album and you gradually realise that this is a more scaled down version of Arcade Fire. The Mariachi strings on ‘Rococo’ do little to hide this fact and the chorus, which consists of repetition of its title, ultimately grates on the listener.
Thank goodness for ‘Empty Rooms’, which restores order temporarily. Win and wife Regine’s vocals drive the track to its anthemic chorus, with swirling guitars creating the trademark atmospheric sound, and it is truly magnificent.
You start to think it’s just the ‘Win and Regine Show’, until ‘Half light 2′ introduces the rest of the band and we finally get to hear that glorious expansive Arcade Fire sound – awash with strings and heavenly harmonies – but why did it take till track 8 to hear them?
‘Month of May’ showcases Arcade Fire at their thrilling and glorious best. Chugging guitars and a sinister backdrop evoke images of paranoia and death, possibly associated with the themes that the album cover hinted at with its ‘Blob’ movie mimicking font. The result is something dark and atmospheric rather than blue collar themes – now this is more like it.
‘Month of May’s brilliance is short-lived and the band retreat back to softer sounds on ‘Wasted Hours’, which is perfect for dinner party listening or lazy summers afternoon but again very unlike Arcade Fire. More interesting is ‘Deep Blue’ which in its conception is murder ballad like; epic, eerie and disturbingly beautiful at the same time
‘We Used to Wait’ regains momentum with its synth-pop vibe and Win’s urgent vocal slowly building to a chorus, which swells with strings and harmonious backing vocals from the band – it’s spellbinding and a sure live favourite.
The concluding tracks reveal what the album nearly could have been. On ‘Sprawl II’, Regine’s vocals are once again pushed to the fore and as she sings of fleeing her old life you can feel her emotion. Synth heavy and a track not unlike one of ‘Passion’s Pit’ this is the band embracing the new and is an epic and glorious closing statement for the album.
In scaling down their big orchestral sound and opting for a raw softer sound, the band have lost some the energy and exuberance which dominated their former releases. The fact that the rest of the band only imprints their personality on a few tracks, which are mainly the singles here, is either a misfire on their part or possibly a more matured approach.
16 tracks does feel like a lengthy opus as you are kept waiting for the thrills, but it does make them huge. One hopes that they don’t stay in suburbia too long and rediscover that quirkiness and energy that made them stars.