Friday, July 30, 2010

"Talking Reviews: James and Joshua Talk About...": The Suburbs, by Arcade Fire

Welcome to our newest series, Talking Reviews: James and Joshua Talk About.... This first review grew out of our complete inability to really wrap our heads around The Arcade Fire's enigmatic new album The Suburbs. Without further ado, here are James and Joshua talking about The Suburbs.

James: So, The Suburbs, the latest from The Arcade Fire, is something, isn't it? Thus far, I've found myself vacillating wildly on whether I like it or not. On the one hand, I like the more restrained approach, and less "we're here to change the world" attitude, but some of the production is lacking, the performances can be dull at times, and the album is a bit of a bloated mess. Also, the more I catch snippets of lyrics, I can't help but feel that Win Butler is being a bit too hard on the 'burbs. That being said, the album has me seriously thinking about seriousness and the importance of humor in pop music.

Joshua: That's a really interesting take. Can you elaborate on the lack of humor in this album?

James: More and more I find myself comparing the Arcade Fire to Bruce Springsteen due to the sense of urgency Butler tries to tap into with his delivery. What the Arcade Fire seem to be missing, however, is that such urgency and seriousness is only a part of Springsteen's persona. Even the Boss's darker albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska are shot through with moments of humor. The Arcade Fire don't do that and the results are growing increasingly dour and preachy--even with the new album's more personal songwriting approach (less war and God, more old friends and sad memories), the album's single-minded anger is eating the life from the songs.

Joshua: That makes sense. On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire certainly seem to take themselves seriously, and the concept of this particular concept album does seem to come across as rather single-minded at times. Ok, suburbs are boring, sprawl is bad. This isn't anything groundbreaking. And there are plenty of opportunities for humor here, but they do seem to let those moments pass.

I think this brings up an interesting shift I've noticed in indie music. One of the problems with alternative music of the 90s was that so many bands took themselves so seriously, likely as a reaction against the playfulness of 80s music. Eddie Vedder thought he could save the world, and Chris Cornell never once laughed at himself. But now we're seeing a lot of bands that seem to be perfectly comfortable having a laugh. Look at Sleigh Bells, who are my favorite new band of the year. Treats is an amazing album, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they don't take themselves quite so seriously, even though they have that big, heavy sound. Ariel Pink is another good example, as is Surfer Blood. While these bands aren't going for the "ha ha" idea of humor, there is a playfulness that runs through those records. In this sense, Arcade Fire seem to have more in common with the alternative rock bands of the 90s. Has Arcade Fire missed the opportunity for humor entirely? Or do you think they would lose something if they were to take themselves less seriously?

James: That question is where this conversation can get messy. The problem I run into at this point is that for me to say, "no, the band wouldn't lose anything," would assume a sort of arbitrary necessity of playfulness or humor in music, and that isn't the case. Historically speaking, Radiohead, Joy Division, Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, to some extent The Cure--were/are all deathly serious, and have secure spots in music history. To a point, the Arcade Fire would lose a lot were they to take themselves less seriously because their legacy, thus far, is built on sincerity and seriousness. That being said, the seriousness is beginning to fail on experiential grounds. Part of living is failing, accepting our failures, accepting the failures of others and soldiering on. The Arcade Fire certainly are not strangers to soldiering on, but on an experience level, isn't one of our most profound ways of coping with failure to laugh about it? To laugh at ourselves and each other and know that what comes next will be better or, if not, we'll at least be better prepared to deal with it? In essence, by continuing to maintain the seriousness of the Arcade Fire throughout The Suburbs, the band is failing to recognize an essential component of lived experience. As a result, the band begins to appear as more of a construct of the sincere, bleeding heart artist as opposed to a living, breathing creative entity attempting to explore real human experiences. The question then, is how does Radiohead get away with their somber image? I'd argue that it is because Radiohead is a band about a central idea--alienation. The Arcade Fire's central idea hinges on sincerity, but they're limiting their sincerity by refusing to acknowledge anything but their serious concerns. The Arcade Fire are so intent on exposing the ills of the world and creating some sort of ideal notion of beauty in their music that they forget that joy is an absolutely crucial component of their paradigm. Of course, the album also falters a bit because some of the songs just aren't very good. This forces me to wonder, then, were The Suburbs as passionate as Funeral or parts of Neon Bible, could the heavy handed navel gazing have worked?

Joshua: I think that, because of the subject matter, had The Suburbs had as much passion as Funeral, it would have come off as absurd, at least in part. You can only get so passionate about your feelings on suburban life without sounding ridiculous. The very concept of suburbia is its restraint, its economy. So, in a large way, the form of this album does match its content.

Which brings me to one of my first thoughts about this album: In order to truly appreciate The Suburbs, I think we need to accept that this isn't an Arcade Fire album. That sounds ridiculous, because of course this is an Arcade Fire album. Their name is right there on the cover, no matter which of the eight variations on the cover you get. But this isn't the same band that put out Funeral. It's not even the same band that put out Neon Bible, and that was a very different Arcade Fire than the one we met on Funeral. The principle players were all there, but it's hard to listen to these albums and see it as the same band. They've evolved. Their sound has changed from one album to the next, much like Radiohead has done with each album, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Perhaps the better comparison would be someone like the Cure. Boys Don't Cry, Pornography, Japanese Whispers, Head on the Door, Disintegration, Wild Mood Swings, all of those albums sound different -- some so different you wonder what Robert Smith was thinking -- but there's still something that makes them easily identifiable as the Cure. Do you think Arcade Fire has a similar something that allows us to see each evolution as the same band? And in what ways do you think, through evolving, their sound has changed for good and bad?

James: The only real thread running through each of the Arcade Fire's albums is one we have discussed at length already--their attitude. Even as the subject matter shifts, the band is still utterly serious about every facet of their image, writing, and performance. Even a potential palette cleanser like "Month of May," from The Suburbs, comes off as a bit of a chore. I'd also slightly disagree with the assertion that were The Suburbs to sound like Funeral, that the album would be absurd. I'd argue that, in a lot of ways, Funeral was already about suburbia, but without any overt soap-boxing. That album was about growing up stifled by social constructs and loss, and the ways that young people fight to forge relationships and identities in the soulless suburbs. While some of those songs directly address neighborhood and the family structure, there is no sense that the suburbs are being judged, but are treated more as a launching point of ecstatic young lives. To that extent, Funeral is about the same spaces as The Suburbs and does a much better job covering that ground.

As for the evolution of the Arcade Fire's sound, I do like some of the melodic restraint running through parts of The Suburbs. I appreciate that not every major song on the album wants to be an anthem. "Suburban War," is a good example of this, and one of my favorite songs on the album. The song's lyrics tell a story about a character grown detached from the place where he used to live, and the people who populated that space. Lyrically, the song draws on some succinct, but specific detail (hair length, for example which, now that I think of it, recalls "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)") to tell this story. Musically, the song keeps itself in check--the performance is one of the album's more exciting, but it never explodes into a full on Arcade Fire anthem. Previous attempts at this approach (the song "Neon Bible," for instance) have come off a bit dull, but here the restrained emotion provides the song with a key tension that propels it to its big (but not anthemic) conclusion. Similarly, "City With No Children," while featuring a huge melodic hook (probably the album's strongest), also manages to exercise restraint and might be the tightest, most simple pop song of the band's career. The band's ability to make big songs like these without a larger-than-life sound or in-your-face, raise-your-lighters and wave-your-flags song structures is a nice change. That being said, some of the new album's lack of energy, and some of the songs' lack of development feel a bit under developed. In a way, this almost feels as if the band was overcompensating for their previous too-muchness. What are your thoughts on the band's evolution on The Suburbs?

Joshua: The first time I heard "The Suburbs," the first track on this album, I thought I had downloaded one of the fake versions that were floating around that day. The music sounded nothing like Arcade Fire. But when Win Butler's distinct voice came over, I realized it was just a very different product than I had expected. On that first listen, I wasn't much for this new sound, with its restraint and polish. With each subsequent listen, I've come to appreciate it more as an album. But still, I can't quite seem to grasp it or evaluate it. I can't tell how it fits in the band's canon. It seems like one of those albums that will take some time to develop for me.

One aspect that I do like about it is that Regine Chassagne seems to be playing a larger role in the band, or at least contributing more vocal leads to this album. In past albums, she seemed to occupy the George Harrison role, contributing one or two songs as variation, but mainly playing a backing role. But here, her songs seem an integral part of the album rather than variations from Butler's songs. And I think her vocals, more than any other aspect of the band's sound, benefit from the more slick production.

James: That's an excellent point on Regine's contribution this time out. While I don't always like the production on her songs (the Blondie-electro-pop sound of "Sprawl II" is a bit tired), I do feel like she brings a fresh energy to the album with each appearance.

All in all, I'm a bit perplexed by this album, but I think, ultimately, The Suburbs is going to end up being an okay album, with some great moments that are diluted by indifference and some outright bad decisions. Songs like "Rococo," "Sprawl (Flatland)," and "We Used to Wait," are a bit embarrassing in how broadly they fail, while others like "Empty Room," "Ready to Start," and "Deep Blue," are so innocuous that, even after a dozen listens through the album, I can never quite remember what they sound like. That being said, "The Suburbs," is nice, as are "Modern Man," "City With No Children," "Suburban War," and the two part "Half Light" suite. Ultimately, though, The Suburbs isn't nearly as major or important as The Arcade Fire wanted it to be, not only because the themes and ideas behind it don't work, but because not enough of the songs click--or rather, in this case, maybe because too many of them don't click. A part of me wonders how this album would sound with five fewer songs--if the bad and boring songs were cut, would this album better serve its themes? Would those big, brooding ideas be easier to swallow if there weren't so many boring moments littering the album's landscape like so many strip malls and SUV's?

Joshua: I agree with your assessment of many of these songs. I seldom ever skip tracks when listening to an album, but "Rococo" tempts me to hit "next" every time it comes up. And you nailed my favorite tracks -- "Modern Man," "City With No Children," "Suburban War," and both parts of "Half Light" are the songs that have resonated most so far.

Ultimately, I think this is a nice record. It's a good summertime album, and good driving music, even if it lacks that anthemic fist-pumping. But for an Arcade Fire album, I'm still left wanting something more. I don't think they'll ever recapture the brilliance that was Funeral; as long as I continue to hope they will, I'll continue to be disappointed and miss what's good about albums like this one. So it's best to take the album on its own merits. While its thematic material will likely turn some people off, the musical aspect of the songs and the production feel a lot safer and more direct than they have before, so I can see this being a more successful album than their past efforts. It certainly has the hype built up. I see this making a lot of year-end lists, especially from mainstream pubs trying to increase their street cred by choosing "hip" bands. But from where I stand right now, The Suburbs doesn't measure up with the best of what's been released this year. A good album, but not a great one.


  1. Haven't heard the album yet, but really enjoyed this format for the review!!

  2. Fellas, I hate to say something that sounds rather hipsterish, but I think you've both teased out why I lean more toward The Arcade Fire's self-titled ep over either Funeral or Neon Bible, both of which I do like, to be clear. That first ep is a mess, and it's not full of strong songs, but the songs that are strong are not dour, and some of them are humorous because they are so over the top. The second track (the name escapes me at the moment) has some crazy heavy bass line running underneath some pretty histrionic lyrics. It's too herky jerky to be serious, even if it is meant to be serious. Also, "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" is gorgeous--cathartic in all the right ways. No "working for the church while your family dies" lyrics.

    Thanks for the review!

  3. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Joseph - Thanks for pointing out the playfulness of the self-titled EP. James and I made the mistake of completely overlooking that record in our discussion of the Arcade Fire canon, so thanks for working it in.