“Now our lives are changing fast. Hope that something pure can last.”

A (probably) hopelessly gushing tribute to the new Arcade Fire album, plus a few words on where they stand having reached the ‘important’ third album stage…

I must confess I was worried about “The Suburbs“. After the mixed critical reception that faced “Neon Bible” – ‘too clunky, too preachy’ seemed to be the consensus view – there were whispers that the third album would be a Springsteen-like paean to middle America: socially aware, of course, but ultimately safe.

Well, it isn’t. At sixteen tracks it is epically long; musically it is both cohesive and challenging; and (above all else) lyrically it is quite stunning. I can’t remember the last time I got hold of an album that so precisely paralleled my state of mind at that point. Perhaps not since teenage lovestruck dalliances with The Smiths or Buzzcocks, in fact. Moreover, the songwriting continues to improve, as while they have always utilised well their strengths in the bricks-and-mortar of song construction and chord progressions, some of the grace notes, suspensions and modulations here are just tremendous. In particular, there are some jaw-dropping deviations from established chord sequences which are resolved so fast as to leave you wondering whether they ever happened. This reflects the cracks in the American dream which are depicted in the lyrics, a synergy which is most impressive.

Pitchfork sums up the meta-critical view – that the album pulls off the trick which the second did not quite manage, that is, to deliver a Silver Surfer-like message to the citizens of earth without sounding either like Eli Sunday or Chicken Little. It is already a critical commonplace to state that “The Suburbs” places the themes and directives of “Neon Bible” into the more introspective and delicate musical landscape of “Funeral”. This is more or less true, I suppose, but it overlooks a crucial emotional development across the three albums, in which the Arcade Fire moved from fearful resolve on the first to righteous anger on the second, but have now arrived at hopeless resignation with the third. For, while the music is markedly less portentous on this record, the lyrics are desperately sad, and coupled with playful melodies (such as on ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains’, see below) the effect is almost traumatic.

Kitty Empire has written a great review here that I agree with almost completely. She picks up on the album’s classical trick of utilising leitmotifs, which, in tandem with the deployment of lyrical recurrences in unexpected coves, makes for a very effective layered progression. In fact, the unity of the album is the most noticeable improvement on its predecessor, which did jump around somewhat (stylistically-speaking, not in a House of Pain kind of way). This can work, of course, but the danger is that as an album (a rather old-fashioned concept, of course), the spell is periodically broken by a violent swerve. No such concern here, as even pounding Interpol-esque cuts ‘Empty Room‘ and ‘Month of May‘ nestle in a sympathetic sonic context.

We Used To Wait‘ is worth a special mention, as for me it is one of a few tracks which completely distil the band’s musical history thus far. It builds from an off-kilter, pleading opening into a near-anthem, topped with sweet harmonic crenellations. The lyrics are characteristic of the album as a whole – “so I never wrote a letter. I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down. So when the lights cut out, I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown.” The feeling I associate most with this album is aching: not in regret for the past, but in fear of the future. (Win Butler implies there is no point dwelling on mistakes made, as the album closes with “if I could have it back, all the time we wasted, I’d only waste it again”.) This very odd review in Rolling Stone suggests Can and Neu! as newly-found influences. I don’t hear it myself, but both ‘We Used To Wait’ and ‘Modern Man’ turn back the clock in some respect – perhaps more towards a notable fellow Canadian than 1970s Germany.

After one of the bleakest songs on the album – Sprawl I (Flatlands) – comes its uplifting, emotive climax, ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’. When I watched the broadcast of the Madison Square Garden gig a couple of weeks ago, this song fell apart due to a defective drum machine. The few bars which worked were enough to captivate me completely, and when they kicked it back in, the effect was incredible. Live, Régine Chassagne sometimes struggles with hitting notes (speaks one who knows), but it didn’t (and doesn’t) matter: I could tell this song was special (a bit like hearing ‘Intervention‘ for the first time and having to rewind to check it really was that good). So it proved on the record. After the crushing tale of “the loneliest day of my life” (in which Win Butler relates not being able to locate a childhood haunt in the labyrinthine urban sprawl), the disco beat of ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains‘ pulses into life and so begins the most unexpected fusion of ‘The Winner Takes It All‘ and ‘Heart Of Glass‘.

Except the lyrics wouldn’t sit too well even with miserablists like Abba and (at times) Blondie. Not unless they had collaborated with both Mike Davis and Louis Althusser. This is a song – indeed, an album – that marks both the existence of the anthropocene epoch and the ideology which facilitates the reproduction of the means of production. Go ahead and roll your eyes now, because this is so up my street it’s gone all the way round and is having to do another lap. However, unlike other notable records which have successfully fused radical academic topics with alternative music, this is put in the English of the suburbs (fittingly).

“Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock” – isn’t this the single most important message fed into our gizzards by the Western education system, churning out the overeducated and underthinking foie gras that is our affluent professional class? And surely we all know some delightfully verbose-but-vacant lads and lasses who “eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand.” Sure, it’s not their fault, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So, I say go and get it. Fantastic album, and right up there with “Funeral” in my view. You can also download the digital version cheaply here at the band’s website, in lossless format too (woo!), getting custom images to accompany the individual songs. More generally, the artwork is beautifully integrated with the themes of the album, showing (literally) the cracks in our rose-tinted spectacles while recognising the power (and ambiguous value) of nostalgia.

I think the Arcade Fire have proved – and over the course of a relatively small discography so far – that they are one of the great bands of our age. For years I had thought that only Radiohead would really justify that kind of statement as many of the hopefuls fell by the wayside, got bored with music, followed up one of the all-time great debut albums with a series of perplexing hit-and-misses, found themselves hedonistically treading water, or declined into faddish mediocrity. But the Arcade Fire are a truly great band with many truly great songs. They are also (in my experience) mesmerising live, and I think thirty quid is actually a pretty fair price for seeing them as I will be in December (as long as they play for their usual couple of hours).

Anyhow, I’ll sign off with one of the most haunting lyrics from the whole album. If this isn’t poetry for the end of civilization I don’t know what is, and it seems to channel critiques of modernity from sources as diverse as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Larkin:

“Living in the sprawl. The dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there’s no end in sight. I need the darkness. Someone, please cut the lights!”

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Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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