Plumbiferous Media

The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

Aug 5th 2010
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The Suburbs - Arcade FireArcade Fire
The Suburbs
Score: 79

Montréal indie band Arcade Fire, founded in 2003 by husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, released their third LP, The Suburbs, on Tuesday. In those seven years, the band has become steadily more popular, and, after winning both a Meteor and a Juno Award for their last album, 2008’s Neon Bible, as well as being nominated for a Grammy for their last two albums, Arcade Fire has become one of the best known groups in the genre. It’s a well-earned reputation, too – Funeral (the band’s first album) and Neon Bible were common sights on lists of the decade’s best. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has changed direction somewhat, but without losing too much of the energy that has made them excellent.

Butler and Chassagne, as with most of Arcade Fire’s music, share vocals on The Suburbs. One of the best things about the band’s music has always been the shared vocal melodies between the two, and the contrast that creates with the solo sections. Butler’s plaintive voice creates a different sound than does Chassagne’s more melodic tones, and it’s that difference (combined with instrumental skill, of course) that allows the band to create such varied and successful sound, whether the duo share or divide the musical landscape.

Arcade Fire has always written albums populated by simultaneously vivid and abstract images, singing about reality from a colorfully poignant point of view. The Suburbs is no exception. Whether it’s the reminiscence of “summers staring out the window” in “Wasted Hours” or the view through a “dead man’s eyes” on “Half Light II (No Celebration),” every image on The Suburbs evokes not only the singer’s own memory but pictures from those of the listener.

Unfortunately, judged solely on its instrumentals, it’s hard not to feel that The Suburbs is frankly, appalingly mismanaged. With the band’s newest album, Arcade Fire seems to have gone for a significantly lighter, less populated sound. The only problem with that is that the band’s orchestrally dense, flowing sounds were what made them so excellent in the first place. The Suburbs has no “Black Mirror”s, no overwhelming waves of sound and emotion. Instead it is populated mostly by guitar heavy lengths of what sounds more or less like filler; minutes and minutes of repetition are far too common, all of it leading nowhere. As an extreme example, the worst offender of the lot, “Rococo,” employs across most of its length a heavy-handed, repeated, uniform strumming that tries its best to change notes as infrequently as possible. The overtly boring, completely uninteresting result is actually somewhat nauseating.

However, to say that there’s nothing meritable about The Suburbs would be a gross overstatement. There are still hints of that beautifully fleshed out sound that truly define Arcade Fire, but they are just that: hints. The album is populated with interestingly placed, quite intelligent strains that seem to defy the pedestrian guitar. The album truly tries to make you want to like it, and that certainly counts for something. And of course, there’s “We Used to Wait.” A far shot from “Black Mirror,” it’s still the closest thing to it, and, set as it is on an entirely different level than most of The Suburbs, it shines.

Still, The Suburbs is not the best album. It will undoubtedly stand eclipsed by both Funeral and Neon Bible, but it, despite everything, is still a great album. Even though the instrumentals and overall sound are nothing like that of its predecessors, a lot of it manages to work. That is for the most part due to the top notch vocals and strong lyrics, but, to be completely fair, “We Used to Wait” is definitely not the only musically engaging or interesting track. Arcade Fire has managed to pull of an album that works despite all too many faults, but at the same time, an album without such problems would have been even better.

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