Review: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

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Rating: 9.8/10

You’ve already heard this album.  It leaked last week, it came out yesterday, and it was streamed on NPR for some time between those two dates.  If you wanted it, you certainly own it.  If you dislike Arcade Fire, you’re wrong but this won’t change your mind.  I think this is a real contender for Album of the Year; it has great depth and has rewarded multiple listens.

But you know all of this.  So why should I even bother with a review?  Besides a clear plea for internet credibility and attention (every music blog/site will have some review of this), I’m actually out to compare and understand this album.  I have two directions to follow: one in terms of the whole Arcade Fire canon, and the other in comparison to the greatest album in music at the time of this release.  That second part will be in another post.

As per the score, a brief review: at first it’s good but not overly great.  Then you listen again and it’s better.  You repeat this about 12 times and it’s spectacular.  I don’t know what trajectory it has now, but the whole this is just so cohesive.  The music and themes hit big like U2, but keep that work ethic that the band is known for.  The hype doesn’t really match the album – this is crafted and lovingly executed.  People are too loud in screaming about the album.  Let The Suburbs work on its terms and you’ve got a winner.

Okay, now for the fun stuff:

The Suburbs as an Arcade Fire Album

Funeral is an epic, emotional masterpiece of rock.  It is full of amazing anthems, great string parts, and upbeat songs.  While the whole thing is amazing, there are very distinct highlights: “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” are clearly the best songs.  These have been the best Arcade Fire songs since their release.  They surge with power, getting you to either move (with the latter) or feel shivers down your spine (with the former).

Neon Bible is a darker album, with a more thunderous bass and moodier atmospherics.  It is far more refined, and not nearly as optimistic.  This album is weaker than its predecessor, but underrated.  There are lulls along the way, but that leaves the top tracks on this release to stand much taller.  “Intervention” is amazing, and “No Cars Go” is electric.

The Suburbs does not have these highlights.  No one songs rises above the others in any significant way.  The opener (“The Suburbs”) is quite similar to others on the release – mid-tempo with meandering guitars.  Even the hard-rocker (“Month of May”) isn’t very noteworthy.  Perhaps the only song to be a semi-standout is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” but that’s mainly due to the differing musical style.  I can’t see any of these songs being Song of the Year contenders.

But I propose that this is far better than Neon Bible.  Why?  Read on.

The answer is in overall musical performance.  Neon Bible has (relative) clunkers in “Neon Bible,” “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” and “The Well and the Lighthouse.”  These songs aren’t bad they’re just not that great.  The Suburbs does not have that problem.  There are no low points, there are no weak links.  You could argue that “Wasted Hours” and “Deep Blue” are too similar and drag a bit, but they’re both quality songs.  This consistency in musicality pushes The Suburbs easily past the previous Arcade Fire album.

So how about Funeral?  Here is where I’m left with a problem.  I love Funeral quite a bit.  I’ve already gushed about how it helped me make a real change to indie rock.  I’m inherently biased to support my old favorites.

I think The Suburbs may be just as good as the Arcade Fire debut.  However, I don’t know if it’s really better or not.  My issue is this: they are constructed in completely different ways.  The Suburbs is seemingly linear: order matters, and I think that the songs would sound strange out of context.  Funeral has songs with thematic similarity, but each track is self-contained.  “Haiti” works well with “Rebellion (Lies)” but you don’t need the lead-in to make “Rebellion” one of the best two tracks of the last decade.

I’m having a difficulty conclusively calling this better or worse than Funeral.  I think that speaks volumes as to just how good The Suburbs might really be.

Be sure to stick around for Part 2 of this look at The Suburbs when we compare this release to the greatest of them all.

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