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A stroll through the suburbs

05/08/2010

The third album is traditionally the slight game-changer with bands. The debut is the beginning, the sophomore album tends to be continuation, evolution or scraps of that said beginning, and by the third album bands usually realise that they can’t go on with just doing what they did before and that in order to survive, they need to change things around slightly. Sometimes because of the ghosts of the past. And if any artist today needs to escape from their ghosts, it’s Arcade Fire. Not that Funeral isn’t a great album – it is – or that Neon Bible was a disappointing follow-up – I’d actually rank it higher than Funeral – but by creating what is essentially the 00’s indie Holy Grail as their debut is essentially being blessed with suck. Whatever they’ll do from now on will be held in a diminishing light as the shadow of Funeral towers over them. Especially so if the sound is derived from that album as what happened with Neon Bible: it took the orchestral, anthemic glory to new heights but was heavily based on the lessons of Funeral. And naturally, the weight bogged it down critically.

The Suburbs is then that game-changer, the album that is meant to show that not only can they change their gear and produce something different, but to show that they’re not chained to the legacy of Funeral like others subject them to do. Naturally, it is full of the Arcade Fireisms that make the band what it is: the anthemic soars, the vocal harmonies, the Very Serious lyrics that are equal parts greatness and daftness. However, the sound isn’t one of a bunch of crazy Canadians bouncing all over the stage in never-ending musical ecstacy: it’s the sound of a bunch of Canadians playing together in a room. The Suburbs calms things down a bit, loosens up and returns to the band element of the band. Rather than commanding a stadium to sing along to wordless choruses or hiring massive orchestras and choirs to beefen up the sound, it’s a step to a more closer-to-earth approach.

The key to The Suburbs is in that warm, loose and, dare I say, organic sound. At sixteen tracks it inevitably carries a few weaker moments, songs that don’t ring a bell even after the xth listen when you look at their name from the tracklist, but the way the album is structured and the music played makes even those weaker moments a listen that keeps on giving. There’s a relaxed effortlessness to The Suburbs and it manifests itself in numerous ways, from the garage band rock-outs like “Month of May” to the complete disdain of any self-limitation by taking the huge pop hooks that are so evident in their music and creating a full on mirror ball glistened-out synth-laden hit-seeker that “Sprawl II” is – arguably the album’s greatest moment that (near-)closes the long journey in a blissful fervour of escapist joy.

One of the more significant features as well is the emphasis on beauty that the subtler sound supports and unveils. While Arcade Fire are a band who have created many weepingly beautiful moments during their past two albums, The Suburbs strips down that element from all the emotional climax and simply offers songs and moments that please the ear in the effortlessly pretty way that they do, flowing smoothly with grace be it a slow moment of standing still or backed by a driven rhythm section.  There’s is something naturally graceful in The Suburbs and several of its songs that drives the enchantment.

Ultimately however, it bores down to numbers. Albums with around 16 tracks or more tend to either be catastrophic overlong clusters of filler or something that finds its true strength in the numbers, something that transforms a selection of well made tracks into something a bit more special because of the sheer colossal size. The Suburbs goes down to the latter category. It feels rather awkward to not mention such tracks as “The Suburbs”, “Rococo”, “Empty Room”, “We Used to Wait”, “Suburban War”, “Ready to Start”, “Half-Light II” or “Modern Man” separately in a review but the more you mention, the more you feel like you should mention everything else that hits the special spots and ultimately the text clutters up to nigh-unreadable. Suffice to say, no matter how the band show that they can tinker with their sound successfully or that the sound they do when tinkering is one of natural, relaxed prettiness that appeals immensely ultimately the reason why The Suburbs is a Very Good Album is simply because that from its sixteen tracks, a vast selection are downright great and a handful outside them are rather good.

The guys and girls of Arcade Fire may never be able to escape the reputation of their debut but they show no signs of letting it get on them or stopping them from having a career that’s surely going to be the stuff of legends eventually. The Suburbs is a great follow-up to two fantastic albums.


Suburban War

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