The much-anticipated third Arcade Fire album drops in two weeks, Getintothis’ Neil Jones finds a band at the very top of its game.
Start as you mean to go on is, or should be, the first rule of any album. Very few seminal records start with a dud, and The Suburbs is no different.
It’s often hard to pinpoint Arcade Fire‘s true ‘classics’ , so high do they set their standards, but this is a bona fide hit.
Already released (along with Month of May), its jangly intro – vaguely reminiscent of Badly Drawn Boy – falsetto chorus, and perfect arrangement make it the ideal opener. Get ready to love it, if you don’t already.
Ready to Start:
Remember Power Out? Keep the Car Running? Well pop this one into the instant winner category too.
Written with stadiums in mind, this is the ultimate, polished, immaculately paced anthem.
‘Businessmen they drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would,‘ sings Win Butler in a swipe at the dog-eat-dog world of modern music, but if any band can overcome the plagues of the corporate big-wigs, it is this one.
Throbbing bass, haunting synth links – the kind Editors have tried and failed to sneak into their recent catalogue – and some of the band’s finest lyrics, make this one of The Suburbs stand-outs – even at first listen.
Producer Markus Dravs has worked with, among others, The Chris Martin Band – and it shows here.
The opening leans on the atmospheric opening of Life in Technicolor with the edgy guitars of 42, and then raises them with a Fleetwood Mac-style, four-and-a-half minute masterpiece.
Lyrically, the track charts the band’s rise from teenage indifference (Funeral), through general indifference (Neon Bible), to adult indifference. ‘In my dreams I was almost there/But then you pulled me aside and said ‘You’re going nowhere’‘ – says it all really. A future single, surely.
A track named after the finest coffee and jazz venue in Liverpool? Surely not!
Alas no, but still the band’s most obvious nod to their seminal first album, Funeral.
A haunting, slowed-down follow-up to Crown of Love, with Win bemoaning the idiocies of modern youth (‘They will eat right out of your hand/Using big words that they don’t understand‘) amid a phenomenally atmospheric backdrop.
A slow-burner, but let it burn. Expect Rococorococorococo to be the answer to many a question about where best to get coffee on Merseyside over the next few weeks.
The first we really get to hear of Regine Chassagne, and what a treat. From a screeching violin opener that briefly sounds like it is setting itself up for a stint advertising trains, Empty Room soon descends into the majestic, fast-paced anthem with which Arcade Fire have become almost synonymous.
Think No Cars Go – sirens, frenzied drums and perhaps the finest vocal performance on the whole album. Which is saying something.
City with No Children:
Nods to T-Rex in a growling, bass-filled intro, before the darkness descends. Win, he tells us, feels he has been living in a city with no children. Hard to comprehend personally, seen as Liverpool seems to be a city with way too many of them, but the sentiments are clear.
‘I wish I could have loved you then/before our age was through/before a world war does with lust/whatever it will do‘ is about as dark and as revealing as The Suburbs gets.
And played along to its repetitive, hum-along intro, with Regine offering the perfect balance melodically, it still sounds pretty special.
Half Light I:
Hollyoaks producers can rejoice. You know those tired, emotional openers to episodes? The ones immediately after some kind of disaster, which feature the protagonists attempting to come to terms with the previous episode’s momentous events?
Well they have a new sound-track to them. Opened by Regine, and then taken up by Win, Half Light I is as melancholic as this album gets. A personal favourite.
Half Light II (No Celebration):
Bass, synth, vaguely whiny vocals? New Order, surely?
The band are known to be big fans of the Manchester lads, and have even been known to cover them, and this is an undoubted nod to Hooky and the boys in their pomp.
It’s easy to imagine Bernard Sumner singing how he ‘wants to wash away his sins/in the presence of his friends‘.
Yet while the feedback and white noise hints at a touch of U2, there’s little too indulgent amid another epic masterclass. And, as far as I know, the bass guitar was worn at a normal height.
After Neon Bible, which leaned heavily on the influence of Bruce Springsteen, it’s refreshing to hear The Boss relegated to the sidelines here. Suburban War, however, is one of the few tracks on which he is allowed back out to play.
Win even allows his distinctive vocals to drift towards Springsteen’s smokier tone as he invites you to ‘go for a drive and see the town tonight‘. And, surprise surprise, it works. Big time.
Month of May:
‘2009, 2010. Gonna make a record of how I felt then,’ screams Win on this relentless, frenzied effort.
He certainly has, but strangely this is the one track which seems at odds with the rest. You have to wonder why such a frenetic, ball-grabbing romp was not used as the album’s opener. But to do so would have been an aberration – Month of May is this album’s guilty pleasure.
Best to have it as a pleasant surprise in the middle. The only criticism? Well, it sounds a little like a song that could have been written by just about any rock band.
Not that it makes it a bad song. Oasis, Kasabian and co have strived for years to write a track which would stand up to this. And it’s one of the weakest on the album.
And to follow, what better way than a back-porch, camp-fire acoustic number? The ultimate contrast indeed.
Win’s gentle, jaunty vocals will appeal to the romantics, and showcase his versatility as a songwriter, but it all sounds a bit too Wilco. Again not necessarily a bad thing, but Wasted Hours struggles to get out of second gear throughout. The only song where the ‘skip’ button was even contemplated.
A chance for Win to show off his singer/songwriter style? Ok. An ear-friendly synth-and-piano accompaniment, with undertones of Bowie, dovetails nicely with a sing-along vocal performance, given some bite by a pitch-perfect middle-eight. James Morrison take note, this is how you nail this kind of track.
We Used To Wait:
And off the back of it, Win returns to the archetypal Arcade Fire song. A bouncy, horror-movie piano opener rolls straight into the kind of melodic, yearning sound which has pockmarked the band’s previous work – Funeral in particular.
‘Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last,’ he sings. It can, and it does.
Less than three minutes long, and with a film-soundtrack feel to it – like a lead character walking through the ruins of a bombsite perhaps – Sprawl I is the perfect antidote to its more upbeat brother. Drums are sacrificed in favour of slow-burning guitars, brass-band bass and shimmering violins, adding up to a sombre, mournful, understated piece of magic.
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains):
About 20 seconds in, and I’m racking my brains as to what it reminds me of. A second or two later, and it hits me. MGMT. Time to Pretend. It’s not the same of course, Regine’s vocals destroy anything New York’s finest indie/dance fusion group can muster, but the tempo, the bass, the haunting piano and synth loop, it’s all there. Only done much, much better.
The Suburbs (Continued):
And as beautifully as it begun, so it ends. Win returns to the opulence of the album’s opener, with a magnificently minimalist, minute-and-a-half reprise. Think of beaches in Ibiza, winding down after an evening spent ‘discovering’ one’s self, and you have the perfect end to a near perfect hour or so.
Suburbs is released on Merge Records in the UK on August 2.