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Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

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Artist: Arcade Fire

Album: The Suburbs

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 3, 2010

It’s amazing that Arcade Fire works as well as it does. On paper, the band seems like an exercise in grandiosity and self-importance — this is a group that features about a zillion musicians singing loud, sweeping songs about love and war and honor and loss. In some alternate universe, they’re featured in the ending credits of Steven Spielberg films.

Indie rock emerged from punk, which emerged partly as a rejection of the bombast and melodrama of 1970s stadium rock lunkheads like Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd. A lot has changed since punk’s late-’70s heyday, of course, but indie rock emerged as a genre of music that was about small cultural moments and people who felt like they were on the cultural margins.

The smallness of ’80s and ’90s indie rock fit it well, aesthetically, but it was also borne partly out of necessity. It wasn’t possible for some unknown band in Lawrence, Kansas to make any but the simplest recordings, and so it made very little sense to bring in a string section or a bassoonist, since those instruments would just make a muddy recording even muddier.

In the 2000s, that changed, as good recording equipment got cheaper and easier to use. More and more indie rock bands began incorporating the string section or the bassoonist, and, probably because these sorts of possibilities existed, indie rock musicians became much more technically proficient. Indie rock, led by people like Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire, began to have a dramatic scope that harked back to... ELO and Pink Floyd, the sorts of bands punk was rejecting in the first place.

Indie rock’s audience changed, too, although it probably changed more slowly than the music did. As with punk, cultural identification with indie rock was initially built around rejection, around avoiding cheesiness. Today, thanks to the internet, it is now easier than ever before to find music you like, however obscure it might be, and ignore music you don’t. Now, it’s just a waste of energy to worry too much about music you don’t like. All music is now disposable, and thus there is no reason to define yourself against something else.

Still, traces of indie rock’s punk spirit do linger in most of its listeners. It does still take modestly more effort to find indie rock that it does to find, say, Justin Bieber, and so most indie rock listeners have found the music they like at least in part because, on some level, more mainstream music doesn’t do it for them.

All this puts a band like Arcade Fire in a tricky position, because what they’ve always done is to take the basic framework of indie rock (for example, "Neighborhood #2," from their debut album, is straight out of the Modest Mouse songbook) and add more stuff (more strings, more melodrama, more lyrics about love and loss) that most indie rock previously would’ve rejected.

It’s mostly a very, very good thing that they’ve done this, and that they’ve led a contrarian like me to try to become a Bruce Springsteen fan qualifies as a minor miracle. (It didn’t take, but I did try.) There’s always the risk, though, that they’re going to careen a bit too far into Spielberg territory. Let us not forget that Spielberg’s films are emotionally manipulative pieces of shit, and they always will be. The Suburbs has much to recommend it, and there have been few rock albums in the past year that I’ve liked more, but it doesn’t quite meet my stratospheric expectations, mostly because of the Spielberg thing.

While The Suburbs exhumes some influences that before had been buried (rigid new wave figures prominently here, and "Sprawl II" is ’70s pop that sounds for all the world like ABBA), most of it occupies precisely the same emotional zone as their last album, Neon Bible, did. Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, sounded youthful and urgent thanks to its lo-fi production and driving rhythms, but Neon Bible was bleaker, more professional, and more detached, and it sounded like the band had aged 15 years instead of three.

This wasn’t a bad thing, but the release of another album with exactly the same character threatens to turn Arcade Fire into Arcade Fire(TM). What they do now feels like it’s based less on inspiration than on craft. The rather ham-fisted title of The Suburbs also creates the impression that Arcade Fire is trying to force Big Themes into their music. And while most of the lyrics convey a sense of drifting, ambiguous nostalgia more than anything else, some of them are a little too obvious: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock... Living in the sprawl, dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains.” Whereas Funeral sounded like it existed because it had to, The Suburbs often sounds very aware of where it’s leading its audience, just as a Spielberg film does.

But still! There are a ton of great songs here, starting with the title track, which manages to be gripping and mysterious despite being built around materials (a few simple chords, a shuffling tempo) that feel thoroughly familiar. As with Neon Bible, the ultra-clear production showcases adroit string arrangements and lots of other extras, but the songs would be fine without them.

Mostly I’m just inclined to enjoy The Suburbs as a really good piece of art, but I’m also struck by how aware it seems of all the buttons it’s pressing. Fifteen years ago, indie rock didn’t really lead its audience around this forcefully. There simply weren’t many listeners, and a lot of the most obvious emotional-manipulation tools (like strings) weren’t really a part of indie rock then. Also, most indie rock musicians just weren’t skilled enough to try something with Arcade Fire’s scope, and so even the really weepy types, like Lou Barlow, mostly tried to tug on their own heartstrings first.

Neon Bible, though, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart. Arcade Fire have an enormous audience and enormous amounts of money. They’ve never shied away from the big, vague themes that arena-rock bands like U2 favor. And their music is now so technically perfect and so filled with well-targeted, yet obvious, emotional cues that it almost feels like it’s coming from some grand Wizard of Oz, and not from people like you and me. The Suburbs is a really good record, but it’s clear that indie rock is not in Kansas anymore.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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