Double Take: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
You can’t always trust your first impression. In Double Take Brandon Stosuy reevaluates albums that were wrongly slagged or sainted.
I like, nay, love a lot of music — and a lot of it’s popular. I would never dislike an album because it featured heavily on year-end or other sort of list. That said, I did disagree with a number of consensus 2010 favorites, including certain parts of our own Top 50 Of 2010. This is why I reassessed Stereogum’s No. 1 album of the year Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the first installment of Double Take and decided to take a closer look at album No. 2, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, in this sophomore edition.
“The music divides us into tribes, you choose your side, I’ll choose my side,” etc.
– Win Butler
There are certain bands I don’t like personally, but can understand why other folks enjoy: Since releasing Funeral in 2004, Arcade Fire’s been one of those groups. It’s not hard figuring out why people like their big sing-along anthems, the thoughtfully romantic lyrics, the engagement with the political, the shambling communal live shows, etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of it; the way it’s done just isn’t my thing. I know Funeral well — it has its moments. My favorite thing about Neon Bible is that (a) it reminded me to re-read John Kennedy Toole and (b) that the group tried too hard to make meaning and it was sorta pretty watching them topple here/there. It seems like a number of hardcore fans were slightly disappointed with Neon Bible and believe the group got their mojo back with The Suburbs. I kept this in mind when I tried to get to its core.
I find myself empathizing and agreeing with many of The Suburbs‘s themes: The idea of growing up, finding your desires and ideals shifting, searching for a power and place in nostalgia without wasting too much time in the past, looking for the same in the hyper-speed present, etc. Suburbia’s a rich, poetic topic more than worth exploring, John Cheever. Here, there are songs with pretty enough sentiments: “We Used to Wait” (“I used to write letters,” “Hope that something pure can last,” etc.), “Rococo” with its easy, ridiculous hipster cynicism (“They will eat right out of your hand / Using great big words that they don’t understand,” etc.), “The Suburbs” (“So can you understand? / Why I want a daughter while I’m still young / I wanna hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before this damage is done”). Nothing mind-blowing — it’s basically the stuff of high-school poetry, a kind of purple, rambunctious high-school poetry I personally find appealing. That said, too many of the songs — “Modern Man,” “City With No Children,” “Half Light II (No Celebration)” to name a few — are so cliche or vague or no-duh or “OK?” to be basically nonexistent. A variation on a theme can be a powerful theme, but not if your words lack real power: We’re told songs were inspired by Win and William Butler growing up in Houston, but these songs aren’t really about the suburbs, they’re about anywhere, which is cool, but also sorta whatever.
Musically, the songs also often feel tired and used. (When not straight-up annoying, a la “Rococo.”) The well-worn Arcade Formula’s seductive and I get the idea of giving a homogeneous sheen to the collection — to mimic the ‘burbs themselves, it’s undifferentiated sprawl — but it ultimately makes for interminable listening. The Suburbs is an hour long, but by the 45-minute mark it starts feeling like those endless summers you had as a kid. Maybe I like my rebellion with a bit more raw power. Or more personalized, idiosyncratic sentiments. In that sense, Win Butler is an interesting frontman: As much as he bellows and wears his heart on his sleeve, his delivery remains weirdly distant, his lyrics applicable to anyone. Maybe he’s going for an Everyman Zombie thing? Maybe he escaped from Less Than Zero. The Google Mapped “We Used To Wait” was a clever way to personalize the nostalgia, to make the listeners feel something. Otherwise, the lyrics remain general, stock. The Suburbs isn’t a horrible album, but it is often a boring album, one definitely in need of editing — it’s too long, unvaried. Why not chop “Month Of May” and “Deep Blue” and the silly, overwrought “Sprawl (Flatland)” and just cut to the entertaining, anthemic disco of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and the appropriate closer “The Suburbs (continued)”? I’m all for big gestures, and for taking our time, but not for wasting the time of others.
If you’re in the mood for shaggy, overstuffed Springsteen-inspired anthems that are grownup, speak of a real place (absolutely sweat it), and make you feel young again, I suggest Titus Andronicus’ excellent The Monitor. Want calmer, moodier, more specifically intelligent and moving thoughts on adulthood from adults, go for the National’s High Violet. Both albums outclass, The Suburbs, an album that for all its outpouring and meditations on aging, feels flat, emotionally immature, and weirdly vacant.