The Suburbs

It must be nerve-wracking to be one of the Arcade Fire at the moment. (That said, there are so many of them – I counted 13 on stage at one gig – that at least the worry gets shared more evenly.) Anticipation for their new album is at fever pitch, but the question being quietly, and not so quietly, asked is ‘Can they pull it off?’ Always an acquired taste of sorts, it’s possible that the musical goalposts have shifted to make their stylised epic art-pop seem an unfashionable proposition. Then again, they never particularly were into following fashions.

Their first album, 2005’s Funeral, was a very rare and wonderful beast indeed, a collection of songs about childhood, death and love that moved from Scott Walker pastiche to epic wordless choruses via  the influences of Byrne, Bowie and the Boss, in roughly equal measure. The follow-up, 2007’s Neon Bible, was initially regarded as a superior endeavour by many (including me), though it has subsequently been criticised for what some see as coldness and over-production.

I don’t share these views. For me, Neon Bible is the greatest album of the past 5 years, a collection of doom-laden songs that contain endlessly wonderful tunes, from the sturm und drang of Black Mirror to the organ-led pomp of Intervention to the stadium-sized No Cars Go. It marked out the Arcade Fire as an entirely different proposition to anything else in the mainstream, a band who marched to the beat of another drummer altogether. They probably have at least 3, so it’s not that much of a stretch.

Which brings us to their new album, The Suburbs. With a staggering 16 songs on it (4 of which were released in some form or another as singles or B-sides before release), it cannot be accused of lacking ambition, any more than it could be accused of failing to deal in diversity. You want three-minute punk? Check out the frenetic Month Of May. You want a guaranteed audience-raising anthem? Listen to We Used To Wait, a Rebellion-meets-Wake Up stormer that deals with the unlikely topic of waiting for letters to be delivered. And if you’re after what could loosely be called the band’s sensitive side, then the Regine-sang Half Light I is a gorgeous, sweeping slice of epic melancholia which neatly ends the album’s first side.

Indeed, this is a far more musically mixed album than the Arcade Fire have previously dabbled in. The enigmatically named Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is the first song that they’ve done that sounds as if, with a few minor tweaks, it could start packing the dance floors, and along with the trademark epic choruses and pounding, thumping bass lines and drumbeats, there are some moments of quiet reflection and introspection, as on Wasted Hours and Deep Blue. These songs aren’t bad per se, just less interesting and striking than the ones that precede them. (Arguably this could have been released as a 12 song album without any sense of great loss.) If you’re looking for traditional grandeur, then the superb Rococo offers a biting, visceral attack on suburban mores, to the kind of chorus that sounds as if it’s going to become a favourite at festivals.

Lyrically, it’s a combination of traditional Arcade Fire concerns of old (‘Businessmen drink my blood…I stare out into the dark…I know we are the chosen few but they don’t understand’), in other words a combination of the apocalyptic and the alienated. It’s theoretically a concept album about suburbia, and anyone who heard the deceptively low-key title track might be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be Arcade Fire-lite, but they needn’t have worried. At their best, the band produce songs that sound like cathedrals of sound, echoing, grandiose monuments to embrace and get lost in, and there are at least half a dozen such examples on this album.

The only thing I miss about the way that the band have become (deservedly) a critical and commercial success is that an intimacy and bloody-minded sensibility seem to be in danger of getting lost along the way. The first time I saw them live was at St John’s Church in Smith Square in London, where they played a magnificent gig showcasing Neon Bible. At the end, they walked out and, quite happily, busked an acoustic version of ‘Wake Up’ on the church steps, creating a casual intimacy between band and fan that left one feeling that one had been part of an amazing communal experience. With this album seemingly bound for stadium glory, one cannot help but have a moment at quiet regret at such wonderful moments looking like they’ve gone forever.


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