Hotly anticipated can be a poisoned chalice. Sometimes mass expectation can bring out the best in a band (Room on Fire springs to mind) whereas for others it can prove a dead weight disrupting the atmosphere that fostered the previous brilliance (MGMT I'm scowling in your direction). For Arcade Fire's follow up to the decade defining Funeral they really fell between two stools. Yes there were great moments but despite critical acclaim I couldn't help but underwhelmed. The infamous difficult second album can come as a blessing and I approach the third release by Arcade Fire in hope that the absence of dizzying expectations that surrounded Neon Bible will result in a finer end product.
The Suburbs - by Arcade Fire
The album opens with the track of the same name and it is immediately striking that grand drama appears to have been dispensed with in favour of a rootsier, folksier sound. If the band were intending to create a Neil Young vibe then on the evidence of the opener they have achieved it. Ready to Start sees an increase in the urgency - the driving tempo and insistent vocals remind me of The Dears and this is much more like the Arcade Fire with which we became familiar in their early tracks. They have stuck with Markus Dravs, producer of Neon Bible, but there is a notably more stripped back approach with a more conventional structure to songs and an emphasis on a clean, clear vocal. This is crucial as lyrically this album has a lot to say. It follows a consistent theme of questioning our consumer society and the suffocation of ambition this implies. The Suburbs makes more sense as a title when you grasp this, and the album certainly seems to be addressing the creeping frustrations of twenty somethings who have become part of the furniture rather than succeeding in changing the world as they once hoped. The plethora of media and artistic opportunities have fragmented rather than emboldened a movement for change which has left a generation confused:
Maybe when you're older you will understand
Why you don't feel right
Why you can't sleep at night now (from Modern Man)
Let's go downtown and talk to the modern kids
They will eat right out of your hand
Using great big words that they don't understand (from Rococo)
Music divides us into tribes,
You choose your's and I'll choose mine (from Suburban War)
This really is an album that lyrically is verging on bitterness. Butler seems uncomfortable and unhappy with his own role since he has found fame and this comes through consistently, like in the bleak 'City with No Children' where he warns:
You never trust a millionaire
Quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them
But I'm beginning to have my doubts
The recurring messages of self-doubt and dissatisfaction with modern living have been poetically covered before by the likes of Conor Oberst yet this album is far more direct and I can't help but feel less effective as a result. Suburban War is potentially the stand out track with a slow development of drama bringing a much needed injection of theatre to proceedings. It heralds a second wind to the album and is followed by the stomping Month of May which sounds like it has been nicked off an Eagles of Death Metal record. It really is great to hear that this band are capable of composing an old fashioned punky track and I'd love to see this indulged in the future. On the whole though the album sticks to the alternative Indie formula which sees a rich palette of influences from Radiohead to The Cure shine through at different points.
As a rule albums I immediately adore are often short lived in my affections whereas those I grow to love become personal favourites. I have a suspicion that this could well fall into the latter category. On first listen it is good but not great yet I sense there are nuances in this album that will take time for me to appreciate. This is very much a first listen rating, and it will be interesting to see whether I feel the same after several repeat listens.
7 out of 10