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Album Review
The Suburbs

The Suburbs
by The Arcade Fire


Review Date
16th August 2010
Reviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam

Arcade Fire’s stock rose dramatically and suddenly with their debut album Funeral – a brilliantly passionate and melodic album which for me at least, hit at that perfect time of my life to be truly meaningful. However its follow-up, Neon Bible had a half-formed, unsatisfying constipated feeling, as if the band were too scared of what had made their name and had to force something out. The Suburbs is halfway between the two – there’s much more of the pitch-perfect melodrama of Funeral, but the album’s a little too sprawling and lyrically awkward to really gain resonance. The fact it’s one of the rare independent albums to top the American album charts is perhaps a sign of Arcade Fire’s now firmly cemented status as one of indie music’s biggest bands – and the album does feature enough wonderful pop moments, and an ambition and eclecticism which should further sell the band to a much wider audience.

Opener, title track ‘The Suburbs’, set up the thematic template of the album – the album is about urban alienation, the changing nature of cityscapes, and repressed memories underneath the change. The deadening effect on individuals (Butler asks in particular, as he often does, ‘won’t someone think of the children’) of conformity and suburban life isn’t a particularly new topic and the lyrics are subsequently still hampered by the facile sloganeering which marred Neon Bible. However, the themes give the album an overall coherence. The opener is much more gentle in setting up the album than ‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’, suggesting this album has a much more resigned air to it – it only takes off with the excellent second song ‘Ready to Start’, an edgy and catchy song.

However, the album is occasionally marred by some banal songs – ‘Modern Man’ for example features a pedestrian melody and some obvious lyrics (the constant refrain of “modern man” is a little lacking in subtlely), while the repetition of ‘rococo’ in ‘Rococo’ was more than a touch annoying lyrically (even if the lyrics don’t pull any punches in skewering hipsterdom by linking it to a ‘superficial’ period of art) downgrading some excellent production work. ‘Month of May’ is stadium rock through and through – but sounds a bit too conventional for a band who are able to turn simple melodies into something much more diverse.

However, there are other highlights: ‘Empty Room’ with its quivering strings and pulsating rhythms is a compelling listen (it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t sound a bit like Goldenhorse albeit with better production though) or the fierce ‘Suburban War’. Arguably this album’s highpoints come through the voice of co-singer Régine Chassagne, who’s a bit more upfront in the album. She features prominently in the album’s mini-suites: ‘Half Light’ and ‘Half Light II’, and ‘Sprawl I (Flatland)’ and ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Be…)’ which form the centrepiece and climax of the album respectively. They’re also the strongest songs, justifying their importance in the album’s overall structure, and ‘Sprawl II’ in particular is an absolute gem. The obvious comparisons of the song are to Blondie and ABBA, but its gorgeous woozy disco fits the cathartic role required in an album of this size (especially as musically it almost comes out of nowhere as far as the album is concerned) and is a contender for song of the year. It’s also a worthy ending to an enjoyable album – if only the lyrics were a bit more subtle and the album edited down slightly – it would have had excellent written all over it.

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