Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Album Review: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (4/5)


Sometimes critics can acclaim albums that pursue the weirdest sounds—at least that’s what I thought when I listened to Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire’s haunting 2007 sophomore Neon Bible, at first a hard pill to swallow but I did get into it, enjoying its darkening outlook on its alternative rock grandeur brilliantly showcased on its best track “Black Mirror.” It’s an outlook that seems to have brightened for its follow-up The Suburbs.

In more ways than one, I do feel like it’s the better album—mainly because there’s more to it. Pursuing more than just aphotic soundscapes (“Black Mirror”) and gothic, disheartening imagery (“My Body is a Cage”) rather within its 16-set delivers a richer, nostalgic warp of confined rock as well as showcasing different approaches to the genre.

Title track “The Suburbs” opens the album nicely, laying down an optimistic hybrid of piano keys over layers of guitar chords and drums—those chords are a lot more blusterous on following track “Ready to Start,” charging melodies, heavier drum lines and piercing riffs. It’s a great downturn in sound, showcasing a lot more musical variety already.

The sound turns-up again on “Modern Man,” badgering some broiling guitar-driven rock, just to be deflected for the darker “Rococo,” penetrated by layers of dark acoustic guitars and haunting background vocals that explore the ghostly “ooh”—ing effect. It sounds like it would be more at home on the last album rather than here, but it’s great either way—similar is “Empty Room” darkening atmospheric soundscapes, but charged with heavier and more fast-paced guitars. It features lead vocalist Win Butler’s wife who manages to still sound pretty good over the bewildering production.

Right in the centre of the album is the angelic musical progression of two-part “Half Light I” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” the first gradually building with progressive guitars, hollowing soundscapes and strings, while the second pursues an edgier sound, lit with muffled guitar chords and synths.

The albums second half holds up well, only not as interesting as the first. “Suburban Nights” clocks in the nostalgia for a more subdued approach to rock than previous tracks so far. It’s nice but better is the grungy, slightly punk-rock of “Month of May” which offers up yet another abrupt shift in sound—charging guitar chords and rapid drum lines, still clocking in the nostalgia (“we were shocked in the suburbs, now the kids all standing with their arms folded tight”). It’s an awesome rock song—could be a potential air-guitar moment.

I’m not too fond on the dragging tempo of “Wasted Hours,” it’s nicely backed with swaying guitar-patterns and soundscapes and nice melodies, but I’m not too keen. “Deep Blue” is another melody heightened number only it’s better—playing with rigid guitars and darker soundscapes complimented by the poignant old western-styled piano keys and Butler’s falsetto which are nicely put up against the poetically personal lyrics, Butler sings (“I was only a child feeling barely alive, when I heard a song from the speaker of a passing car”) and continues (“The memories fading, I can almost remember singing…”).

“We Used to Wait,” is great—anxiously progressing with pondering synths and piano keys. Similar to “Half Light,” the album lures on towards the end with the two parts “Sprawl I (Flatland)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” I’m never really too sure what most alternative rock bands are going on about lyrically, especially when the grandeur is turned down and it’s just an emotional vocal delivery over a melancholic arrangement, however it’s not too hard to miss that Butler’s singing about lonely suburban life—living in the suburbs of London, I should be able to relate but the first part indulges in a bit too much self-pity for my liking (“It was the loneliest days of my life”) the second part however is lighter, a nice upbeat synth-driven production.

The album closes with a 1 minute continuation of title track “The Suburbs.” It sounds a bit unneeded, but also pretty nice. A mellow arrangement flourished with strings, soft drum lines and angelic vocals. The Suburbs deliveres a varied, coherent set—more musically interesting and while I do really like this album and do think it’s an all-round pleasant affair than Neon Bible, I’m still not that sold on it or the band for that matter. It’s a good record, but I don’t see myself coming back and listening vigorously—selected album tracks for sure but as a whole? Probably not. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s just not my thing.

Best: Ready to Start, Deep Blue, Month of May, Rococo, We Use to Wait, Modern Man

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