Win Butler invokes ‘the kids’ endlessly on The Suburbs. Not in a way that strives to be hip or is particularly flattering, just witheringly. They’re depicted with ‘their arms folded tight’, ‘using words that they don’t understand’ or asking what is that ‘horrible sound’. It’s not hard to suggest that one of the many things that The Suburbs might be about is the hyper-critical, immensely self-aware hipster culture that has grown in recent years that Arcade Fire have matured amidst: blogs, bloggers, Pitchfork, cynicism, irony, cynicism about Pitchfork – the kind of culture where everyone’s a critic with their own little soapbox from which to take potshots and attempt to build an unthinking consensus on what’s good, right and authentic. It’s a pre-packaged defense against criticism, much like Best Coast’s studied lo-fi amateurishness; it makes it hard to really say too much for the fear that you might be missing the point or saying what they want you to say.
Not that I’m really yearning to score cheap hits on Arcade Fire. I’ve had a special affection for them and have done from the outset of my ‘serious’ interest in music. When I was still fumbling about in the dark with my musical preferences and what to do with them, Funeral was one of the first contemporary albums I remember loving. Alongside 70s Pink Floyd albums and 90s Radiohead, I placed Funeral on a plinth and declared it to be good music – as much to myself than to anyone else – and it’s remained a touchstone ever since.
Big, overarching themes are, of course, just as much a part of Arcade Fire’s music as their ornate baroque instrumentalisation and the intensely private narratives; here the big overarching themes are as much of a problem as they are exhilarating, the baroque stylings are as dialed down as they’ve ever been in favour of restrained melancholy, and private narratives are forgone for the band’s desire to define a generation and frontman Win Butler’s craving to sneer and lay judgment on it.
The fractured, private honesty of Funeral this is not. Weighing in at a bulky 65 minutes, The Suburbs is low on immediate hooks and heavy on mid-paced, stadium-ready navel-gazing – falling somewhere, awkwardly, between Neil Young, Bruce Spingsteen and U2. More optimistically, despite these comparisons, this isn’t Neon Bible part deux, either.
Whilst it shares in elements of their previous album’s anti-whateveryougot attitude and desire to capture the zeitgeist, The Suburbs is a far more human record. Instead of railing against the state, church and Bush-era America, the band has fallen back to wider and more relatable themes. Sprawl II – as well as being one of the album’s stronger and more immediate songs – details the end of adolescence (“They heard me singing, and they told me to stop/ Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”) and romanticised childhood (“We rode our bikes/ To the nearest park/ Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark”) with technicolour clarity.
These themes are repeated ad nauseum throughout the album to lesser effect on the album’s weaker songs (of which there are a few) Win repeats ‘the kids’ a lot – and you get the general idea through pure brute force by the time you’re half way through your second listen. The synths and bright textures on Sprawl II are wonderful for what they are, but it wouldn’t be out there to suggest that its success is partly down to the relief it brings after a good thirty minutes of grey, indistinct songs with formulaic instrumental crescendos and breathy Springsteenian lyrics about ‘the kids’ in rustbelt suburbs. Some of it grows on you, but in trading in some of that baroque melodrama and theatrical strangeness for a more nuanced, restrained sound the album lacks punch and immediacy for a considerable amount of its runtime; you get the impression that some of the album’s unnecessary sprawl (sorry) is as a result of Win’s desire to fill out his narrative, to make sure he’s said everything he wants to say. It’s a admirable goal and given his committed craft and literary detail as a lyricist in an age where it’s more fashionable to mumble what you don’t have to say behind layers and layers of reverb, it’s almost commendable – only, it doesn’t always work.
It’s a shame as his world-weary musings often do find satisfying outlets. As well as the aforementioned New Wave sparkle of Sprawl II, Rococo offers baroque grandeur and the title track offers one of Win’s stronger vocal performances over a piano shuffle backing that could be unkindly described as sounding like a smarter Travis. Whilst, like most double-album length records, everyone will take away with own personal favourites, the The Suburbs biggest irony is that , as a concept conceived so singularly as a piece and a statement – down to the uncountable variations of the album art, which will mostly only be seen ‘compressed on a tiny screen’ – it’s ordering is its greatest weakness. As a collection of songs it’s stronger, far stronger than Neon Bible, but as a cohesive album it doesn’t hold it together.
Compelling is probably the best way to describe The Suburbs. Not a vague, CD quote kind of way, but in an equally bewildering and quizzical sense. It’s a cop out, but this is the kind of album that can’t really be done justice in a review made after half a dozen or so spins, and the band, with their big ideas and intricate details, almost definitely meant it to be that way. As I listen now I still notice little touches I overlooked before, and lyrics affect me where they merely went by before. It’s not Funeral and no amount of ‘growing on me’ will make what is undeniably – despite its charms – an overlong album reach those heights. But then the band would be hard pushed to better it even if it wasn’t. It’s is strong album; the kind of album only Arcade Fire could make. How good that is depends on what you already think of Arcade Fire by this point.