If Arcade Fire has taught me one thing, and one thing exceedingly well, it’s to never judge an album after only one listen. I found Funeral intriguing the first time around, and it resonated with what was going on in my head at the time, but the messy mixing and overly-emotional singing put me off so much that I expected to never return to it. Then one day, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I felt like listening to it again. And again. And again. Around the third listen, I starting loving the vocals. Around the fifth listen, I stopped noticing the mixing. Around the seventh listen, I decided it was going to be my favorite album for the rest of my life.
I finally got it in me to try the more polarizing Neon Bible, and ho boy was I crushed with disappointment. Where are the soaring melodies? The huge arena hooks? The glimmer of hope amidst all the misery? Any resemblance of catharsis? It was another “never listening to that again” moment. Predictably, I did come back to it, and while I still don’t love it as much as I desperately want to (largely because it’s a serious downgrade from Funeral compositionally), there’s several moments of astounding emotional brilliance that I didn’t bother to assimilate the first time. It was enough to make me consistently claim Arcade Fire as one of my favorite artists, because hey, even if I don’t like The Suburbs and Reflektor, that still leaves half of their discography!
You’d think this pattern would give me some kind of foresight into my reaction to The Suburbs. It didn’t. I was so hopelessly bored by my first listen that I didn’t want to finish it. The excessive runtime and uniformity of style crushed any emotional response I could have to it. I could not fathom how this excessive diet Springsteen was made by the creators of Funeral.
Thankfully, before I sat down to write a scathing review, I remembered my initial reactions to Arcade Fire’s first two albums, sighed, and gave it a few more goes.
Firstly, this is, as far as songwriting goes, an immeasurable improvement over Neon Bible. “Ready To Start”, “Half Light I” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are practically Funeral quality melodically, and there’s a lot of anthemic hooks on here that easily stand with “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” in terms of catchiness, emotional power, and infectious raise-your-lighter-and-sing-along quality. They’re catchy, dynamic, and (most importantly) resonant.
The arrangements are nice as well. Distortion and fuzziness are used to thickly atmospheric effect, like you’re half-remembering a song without recalling the technicalities of what all the instruments were doing. The sound is lacking in stylistic diversity, but the tonal diversity keeps the album from being redundant (at least after multiple listens to sort it all out). Per usual, the style is distinct from everything else Arcade Fire has done: Funeral was theatrical introspection, Neon Bible was a looming apocalypse, The Suburbs is wistful, disillusioned nostalgia.
And dogflapstraightjackit, even if Arcade Fire lost all their musical ability, they would still be brilliant writers. Their style of concealing meaning beneath a carefully crafted lens or metaphor while being completely unsubtle with their emotion sweeps me up every time I listen to any of their songs, even sub-par ones. The theme here is adolescence, something covered extensively in Funeral, but from a far different perspective. There’s still reevaluation of childhood, authority figures, and the past in general, but instead of being prompted by a sudden tragedy it stems from meditative boredom. Funeral was a rush of chaotic feeling, Neon Bible a carefully orchestrated statement, The Suburbs a journal of hazy thoughts from particularly philosophical lazy days. Especially interesting are the jabs that Arcade Fire makes at their own stereotypical hipster fan base in songs like “Rococco.” The album extols the creativity that society continually represses, making it seem like Bohemia heaven, but the detached hypocrisies of self-labeled “Bohemians” and “arteests” are one of the many targets. This all climaxes in the gorgeous “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, which shakes off fear of being “pretentious” in honor of unabashed emotional excess. It’s essentially an Arcade Fire thesis statement, and the perfect culmination of everything great about this album and this band.
And yet…this thing didn’t need to be 64 minutes long. I don’t dislike a single song on here, but there’s far too many flavors of the same drink. Compared to the musical rainbow that was Funeral or even the concise mood pieces of Neon Bible, this is a massive letdown. It particularly drags in the middle, like most albums of this type, before rallying into a (mostly) successful rejuvenation at the end. If trimmed to a more traditional 45 minutes, you might lose some nice songs, but I definitely wouldn’t have had the instant negative gut reaction. I imagine there are other people in the same boat who were not already sold on Arcade Fire, and thus didn’t even bother to give it another chance. What a shame.
That massive thorn aside, this is a wonderful album, slightly better than Neon Bible if only because of the superior songwriting. Well worth picking up if you like this band. If you want to get into them, though, this should absolutely NOT be your first listen, as it’ll wear you down before you get to the jelly filling. Yum.
Music: 4/5 -1 for uniformity.
Thematic Content: 5/5
Diversity: 2/5 +1 because there ARE differing tones in there.
Resonance: 5/5 Almost took off a point for the tiring first listen, but then I realized that wasn’t exactly fair.
Experience: Attending a barbecue in your old neighborhood with your old friends only to realize it’s not as idyllic as you remembered. Discussion ensues. Disappointment becomes nostalgia, which becomes hope for the future. Everyone goes home a bit too late.
9/10. Best Song: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)