Before we begin, a quick preface: my name is Ben and I’m going to be hopefully contributing to this blog on a fairly regular basis, especially in terms of reviews.
So it’s come to this, the most impossible-to-review album of the year (unless, of course, Radiohead follows up on rumor and releases something, but that has yet to be seen). Arcade Fire put themselves in a difficult place after starting their career with one of the landmark albums of the decade, a work that garnered massive critical and popular acceptance. Of course, as with any band that comes out with something of Funeral’s stature, backlash is inevitable, and the band did little to temper that backlash with their second album, Neon Bible, a decent if incredibly bloated work trading on awkwardly used Springsteen-isms, only occasionally reaching the highs of power and poignancy that so defined Funeral. So, here, another three years later, they’ve released The Suburbs, and, inevitably, we must attempt to consider it in multiple ways.
The problem with a band like Arcade Fire, one that seems fully formed from the second they come into popular view, one that releases a bona fide classic as its first major release, is that from then on, considering their work will become a constant tug of war. On one hand, we have to try and consider their albums as objectively as possible, as products, statements of their own. On the other hand though, it is impossible to ever fully separate Arcade Fire from Funeral. It’s their definitive work, and will be, probably for their entire career unless they can pull a Radiohead and drop an album so innovative and advanced as to make Funeral sound like a mere stepping stone.
How then, is the album? Well, in the objective-rating sense, pretty fucking good. Better than that, even, a potential album of the year contender, guaranteed a major presence on end of the year lists ranging from the glossiest of magazines to the depth of the blogosphere. There are numerous standout tracks, ranging from “City With No Children,” a stronger invocation of classic Springsteen tropes than anything on Neon Bible, to the ambling, cosmic
The next question, and perhaps the more important one, is how does it stack up? And, perhaps inevitably, the answer is, “adequately.” The peaks in tracks like “Tunnels,” “Power Out,” and “Rebellion (Lies)” are approached, but never equaled by “We Used to Wait,” “Suburban War,” and the like. The general absence of the ornate instrumentation so prevalent in the past can put an uncomfortable amount of light on Win Butler’s lyrics, which, when surrounded by grandiosity always sounded appropriate, but, in certain contexts here can sometimes seem alternately forced and embarrassingly elementary. The Suburbs, while certainly personal and sincere, doesn’t come close to the grand, tortured emotional statement that was Funeral. And, of course, it couldn’t. Funeral was the product of a very specific set of circumstances, circumstances that can’t be duplicated on a regular basis. It would be absolutely unreasonable to expect Arcade Fire’s later works to match it. But that’s the trouble of starting your career with a classic. So, while “Sprawl I (Flatland)” could have been the crowning achievement of a lesser band and “The Suburbs” suite in many hands would have seemed a pinnacle of ambition, The Suburbs will forever lay in the shadow of the now near-mythical classic that preceded it.
To avoid ending this on a down note though, one song deserves special recognition, a track that resides proudly in the canon of untouchably great Arcade Fire songs, up there with the gothic grander of “Intervention,” the exhilaration of “No Cars Go,” and, admittedly the majority of Funeral. This is “Sprawl II (