Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

In the barren land of the contemporary concept album, the band that tries is king.

The Suburbs is the year’s only true concept album, as demonstrated by the thematic threads woven through songs, the reprises and continuations of songs across the disc, and the packaging.  And, although it never quite attains the cohesion and creativity of Relient K’s 2009 offering Forget and Not Slow Down, the expansiveness of 2008’s Coldplay record Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends), or the dramatic force of 2008’s other great concept album, the Counting Crows’ Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, it certainly carries the torch into the coming decade as 2010’s concept album du jour.

Arcade Fire have long held indie credibility and respect, clarifying via Funeral (2004) and Neon Bible (2007) that they value record-making over single production.  Each of their first two albums made the cut on numerous “Best of” lists, not only for the year they were released but also for the decade.

So the fact that The Suburbs is an even more complex and keenly rendered effort is saying something.

This album has a sound all its own, one that is clearly Arcade Fire but also fresh and unique to this record.  For instance, as strong a composition as “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is, it would sound incomplete, empty even, were it to be placed on The Suburbs, an album characterized by a fullness of sound heretofore unachieved by the band.

What is perhaps most detrimental to the overall quality is the length of individual songs, most of which brush past the four minute mark.  Arcade Fire has never shied away from breaking the three minute ceiling, and yet there is such a homogeneity of sound throughout that the duration of individual tracks causes the listening experience to blend together.

One might argue that this is a strength, that this provides cohesion that elevates the effort as a whole, yet it is difficult to argue this when many of the strongest individual songs — tracks like “Wasted Hours” and “Month of May” — have significant thematic value while aurally distinguishing themselves and remaining in the three minute range.

Perhaps this homogeneity is an intentional compositional decision on Arcade Fire’s part, meant to help convey sonically the boredom, fear, and regularity of suburban life that The Suburbs exposes and explores lyrically.

I can certainly respect this as a creative decision, though it doesn’t change the fact that, for as good a record as this is, I simply haven’t revisited it as often as other discs from 2010.

The Suburbs cover (Arcade Fire, 2010)

The Suburbs cover (Arcade Fire, 2010)

As the cover’s vibrant but sun-spotted, seventies-esque image of a residential home with car parked out front suggests, The Suburbs comes across quite convincingly as a historical document of the rapid post-World War II expansion of suburban areas, often referred to as sprawl.  The hauntingly emotive “Sprawl I (Flatland)” aptly captures the claustrophobic nature of the neighborhood.  As Win Butler sings, “The cops shone their lights on the reflectors of our bikes / and said, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ / — Well sir, it’s the first time I’ve felt like something is mine, like I have something to give.”  Anyone who grew up in the suburbs will remember this urgency of exploration, of attempting to find a place in the larger world you felt existed but could never quite access.

Butler continues, “The last defender of the sprawl said, ‘Well where do you kids live?’ Well sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth I’ve been searching every corner of the earth.”  This motif of authority, of the norm-protectors and upholders of the public safety blurring the line between security and apathy, is touched on across the record.  As in suburban life, the authority blends into the background but is always there, threatening to impinge on the processes of youthful discovery.

On “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” Butler’s wife and bandmate Regine Chassagne takes on the role of an eighties performer, voicing over a bed of synthesized sound that, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop, quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.”  Here, she sings more directly of a fear of purposelessness, of the constrictive nature of the city lights.

As she goes on to sing, “Living in the sprawl the dead shopping malls rise like / mountains beyond mountains and there’s no end in sight. / I need the darkness.  Someone, please cut the lights!”

These two tracks provide a fitting wrap-up before giving way to “The Suburbs (continued),” a minute long reprise of the title track, which nicely fades back into the opening (and title) track.  The waning whisper of “The Suburbs (continued)” aptly makes one thrill at the returning vitality of “The Suburbs,” luring the listener back into this locale, “waiting in line for a number,” not understanding, like a “Modern Man,” getting “Ready to Start,” admiring the “Rococo” arrangement of images and sounds across The Suburbs, traversing the loneliness of the “Empty Room,” the feeling of living underground in a “City With No Children” in “a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison,” adding up both half lights to find “(No Celebration)” but a prayer “to god I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” instead, witnessing a “Suburban War” where “the music divides us into tribes” and “all my old friends, they don’t know me now / all my old friends are staring through me now,” reliving the passion and violence of the “Month of May,” reminiscing about “Wasted Hours” that passed “before we knew where to go and what to do,” remembering how “I used to write letters” and “We Used to Wait” for a letter to return though “sometimes it never came,” and ultimately ending up back in the “Sprawl” — the “Flatlands,” the “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” all amounting to a concept of “The Suburbs,” taker of all the time that “I’d only waste… again.”

For keenly recreating the texture and the mood of the suburban life and all its benefits, shortcomings, and ramifications, Arcade Fire deserves praise for The Suburbs.  In a sense, they have created an aural landscape that is difficult to revisit for too long or too often, which suggests an interesting question as to the divide between music as entertainment and music as art.

Regardless, they have also created an outstanding concept album.

The Best Packaging of 2010

By Chris Moore:

As compact discs increasingly earn the distinction of endangered species, it is important to point out artists who are still taking the medium seriously, offering up packages that include not simply a CD and a cover but also a larger, thematic concept that unites the physical components of the release.  The albums listed below have distinguished themselves in various ways, avoiding the temptation to release a cheap digi-pack with minimal thought evident.

The Ben Folds/Nick Hornby collaboration Lonely Avenue earns top honors here, as the special edition packaging included not only the CD and cover, but also a cleverly designed back cover, complete lyrics, and a hard cover booklet that features four short stories written by Hornby.  This is a unique arrangement and is clearly a standout example of packaging in 2010.

Others have created eye-catching covers and included multiple facets, such as lyrics booklets, posters, slip covers, and more.  The Gaslight Anthem was particularly creative, initially including a set of postcards which featured images of relevant locations and lyrics on the backs.  Arcade Fire, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Stone Temple Pilots have earned their places here with well-designed booklets that transcend the norm.

As always, I encourage you to share others that belong on this list (see the comments below), and I remind you to return every day for the rest of the year for a new list.  The best is yet to come, including the best music videos, songs, albums, and more!

1)  Lonely Avenue – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

2)  American Slang – The Gaslight Anthem

3)  The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

4)  Mojo – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

5)  Stone Temple Pilots – Stone Temple Pilots

Honorable Mentions:

To The Sea – Jack Johnson

High Violet – The National

Worst Packaging:

Y Not – Ringo Starr

Bad Books – Bad Books

The Road to Nyack – Playlists on Parade

I’ll be driving my sister and her boyfriend back to New York soon.  Seeing as how I have a full gas tank already and recently brought my car for an oil change, I figured the best way to prepare for the trip was to make a playlist.

No brainer, right?

So, I’ve spent much longer than I should have rooting around among my iTunes archives to find a selection of songs that is varied, caters to both of our tastes, and will be good for a road trip.  This was a bit more difficult than I initially anticipated, but I finally have a final sequence that will last the entire hour and a half journey (give or take).

You’ll find some songs that Jaime first introduced me to via her consistently high-quality compilations, songs like “Anti-Christ Television Blues” from Arcade Fire and “I Just Do” by Dear & the Headlights.  Other songs are my picks from albums that she introduced me to, tracks like Right Away, Great Captain’s “What A Pity” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

I would have liked to include a different track by the Hush Sound (“A Dark Congregation” is a song that she included on a compilation), but I haven’t picked up a copy of their 2008 album Goodbye Blues yet.

Emphasis on “yet”…

The rest of the playlist is populated by blasts from the past, like the opener from Relient K, as well as a healthy helping of new 2010 tracks that I want her to hear (the songs from the Black Keys, the Hold Steady, Locksley, and Spoon).  And, of course, I couldn’t resist Bob Dylan and Beach Boys songs with New York in the title, as well as the only song I know of that refers to Nyack in the lyrics: Fountains of Wayne’s “Little Red Light.”

So, that’s my thought process on the creation of this playlist.  If you can think of any songs I should have added, comment as soon as possible so I can make the necessary updates!  🙂

1)  “My Way or the Highway…” – Relient K

2)  “I Just Do” – Dear & the Headlights

3)  “Asleep in the Chapel” – Thursday

4)  “Hard Times in New York Town” – Bob Dylan

5)  “Cream and Bastards Rise” – Harvey Danger

6)  “16 Military Wives” – The Decemberists

7)  “Drive My Car” (Live from Good Evening New York City) – Paul McCartney

8)  “Tighten Up” – The Black Keys

9)  “Am I Ever Gonna Find Out” – Lifehouse

10)  “Get Back” (from Love) – The Beatles

11)  “Hustle and Cuss” – The Dead Weather

12)  “The Girl From New York City” – The Beach Boys

13)  “Try” – Straylight Run

14)  “The Fixer” – Pearl Jam

15)  “What A Pity” – Right Away, Great Captain

16)  “Drive” – Incubus

17)  “Blue Orchid” (Live from Under Great White Lights) – The White Stripes

18)  “Soft in the Center” – The Hold Steady

19)  “21st Century” – Locksley

20)  “A Dark Congregation” – The Hush Sound

21)  “The Vampires of New York” – Marcy Playground

22)  “Anti-Christ Television Blues” – Arcade Fire

23)  “Hop a Plane” – Tegan & Sara

24)  “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel

25)  “California Zephyr” – Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard

26)  “Little Red Light” – Fountains of Wayne

27)  “Written In Reverse” – Spoon

28)  “Everybody Learns From Disaster” – Dashboard Confessional