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Album Review: Arcade Fire ‘The Suburbs’

I’ve come to realise that if I constantly compare Arcade Fire’s music to their debut album, I am only ever going to be disappointed by the new music of one of my favourite ever bands. For me personally, I don’t think anything they ever do will top that stunning debut record. Therefore, I’m going to write this whole review without mentioning the word ‘Funeral’ at all. Except for that.

‘The Suburbs’, Arcade Fire’s third album, is a masterpiece. Like all masterpieces it is not without its flaws, but even these flaws somehow add to the overall feeling of the record- as the Butlers mutter during The Suburbs (Continued) to close the album, “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I would only waste it again”. Sure enough, ‘The Suburbs’ is a long record, clocking in at 16 tracks and exactly one hour, but yet the songs that feel wasted upon first impression only add to the experience after repeated listens.

Those following the release of the record will be familiar with at least four of the songs here, so let’s start with those. The Suburbs suitably opens the record, with a swinging acoustic guitar and piano riff that seems like it should only ever be heard when played on a vinyl record player. It just has that genuine, almost old-timey feel, and this sense permeates the rest of the record.

Immediately after The Suburbs the record kicks into another familiar tune, Ready To Start. It is easily one of the highlights of the record, properly beginning the theme of suburban dissatisfaction, which is just one of many concepts covered by the album. “All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes, but they bow down to him anyway. It’s better than being alone” are to me lyrics about how we accept something that we know to be fake simply because it is better than the alternate nothingness.

Month Of May is for me a quite disappointing and straight-forward tune from Arcade Fire, but We Used To Wait is the pinnacle of the album and indeed of recent Arcade Fire songwriting. Lyrically it is probably the band’s most satisfying and complete song to date. It deals with how modern times have isolated people rather than uniting us and how ‘pure’ things struggle to survive in these fast-moving times: “And it seems strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive. But what’s stranger still, is how something so small can keep you alive”.

All these tracks that you’ve probably heard before somehow just grow when they are placed within the record as a whole. This I think is the mark of a truly great album. I had We Used To Wait on very high rotation for the month leading up to the release of ‘The Suburbs’, but hearing it for the first time as part of the album still managed to send shivers up my spine.

There are gems hidden amongst the deeper cuts of the album as well. Empty Room immediately grabs you with a frantic violin opening, and it never lets go. It is perhaps the biggest departure from typical Arcade Fire on ‘The Suburbs’ (even though strings of course have always been an integral part of much of their music), and they pull it off with such style and grace that this becomes a captivating song in its own right, not just an interesting b-side to the more familiar songs of the album.

Rococo creates an interesting juxtaposition with more immediate songs such as Month Of May and Empty Room- it’s a building crescendo song, growing gradually through repeatedly intoned choruses of ‘Rococo’ and the gathering symphony of strings. Deep Blue does likewise, twisting an acoustic guitar riff very similar to that of The Suburbs, only infinitely more relaxed. Just like its eight different album covers, ‘The Suburbs’ is all about the subtle differences.

As a massive fan, I’m of the belief that you can never have enough Arcade Fire, so the longer this record the better. For the purposes of this review however, I have to question whether the album needs to be 16 songs long. As I said before, upon repeated digestion of the album, you begin to appreciate the intricacies of even the more mediocre songs, and they start to add to the journey that the record takes you on in subtle ways. But dropping a couple of songs could have certainly made for a much tighter and more instantly-enjoyable album. The second half seems to drag on perhaps slightly too long, despite being punctuated by the sheer awesomeness of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) and the aforementioned We Used To Wait.

Then again however, this album isn’t designed to be an instant wonder. You really get the sense that Arcade Fire are trying to convey a message through ‘The Suburbs’, one about disenchantment of the everyday and the intricacies of the suburban dystopia. What exactly they’re trying to say can perhaps only be understood through years of listening and personal interpretation of ‘The Suburbs’, and more likely will never be fully comprehended. Arcade Fire even tells the listener to “Wait for it” repeatedly on We Used To Wait, but the song ends abruptly soon after and you’re left wondering what exactly you were waiting for.

And that’s exactly the point of ‘The Suburbs’ as music to me. It’s not about the destination- the meaning- it’s about the journey to get there. In typical Arcade Fire fashion, they themselves best sum up this sentiment:We used to wait for it, now we screaming ‘Sing the chorus again!'”. ‘The Suburbs’ isn’t necessarily an attack on instant-gratification music, but it does question and explore this concept.

There’s plenty here to like upon first listen, but there’s a hell of lot more that reveals itself afterwards, and it’s a record that you will be thinking about for a long time after you’ve finished hearing the last restrained tones of The Suburbs (Continued). To Arcade Fire’s credit they have managed to balance this slow burn perfectly with obvious hit singles, and it is this constant balance that makes ‘The Suburbs’ an enthralling, stunning, and downright amazing record.

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