Is it a masterpiece because we really, really want it to be a masterpiece or is it really a masterpiece? The 'M' word gets thrown around an awful lot in the rock and roll world and frequently it has more to do with the moment than the music. Sometimes it happens right out of the box, like the 2008 Fleet Foxes debut. But more often than not, it's the third or fourth record for a band that's slowly been building momentum, gaining the approval of its elders, getting great press and finally breaking out, selling out stadiums and actually selling records. In the post-classic rock era, it's happened to The Clash, U2 and Radiohead in that order and really that's about it.
Arcade Fire scored big on their 2004 debut, Funeral
, and kept it rolling on 2007's fine Neon Bible
. They've developed a well-deserved reputation as a great live band, growing their audience in all the right ways. Now they've released The Suburbs
, their most ambitious album by far. 16 songs worth of disillusioned teens and vacant mall-eyed adults, all driving around disconnected.
One of the ways a band matures is by distancing themselves with irony. Bono transformed himself from a white flag waving evangelist to a sarcastic, shades-wearing stylist in order to make Achtung Baby
. Miraculously, U2's music didn't suffer from the transition, becoming more personal, less anthemic. Win Butler and his band of multi-instrumentalist gypsies are known for their passion. In the past, Butler sang as if his life depended on it. The band amplified his zeal with pounding tom-toms, massive background vocals and the clatter of accordions, violins, hurdy-gurdy and anything else that could be pounded on or pawed. On The Suburbs
, all that is gone. These songs feature a traditional rock band set-up and are based on mid-tempo eighth note patterns, pumped on guitar or piano. To call this album stylistically consistent would be an understatement. If this record is a masterpiece, it's the subtlest one in rock history. London Calling
, OK Computer
and for that matter Talking Heads Remain In Light
, all marked the moment when a band discovered it had new rhythmic range. They no longer had to conform to the limited territory they had carved for themselves and were willing to risk losing their audience to stake out new ground. Somehow, Arcade Fire have arrived at the same point by reigning in their impulses, focusing on the gentle melodies of their songs, stripping them of excess.
The bulk of these songs are stunning. The title track is a mournful, piano-based shuffle, and a perfect template for the rest of the album. Butler sings "Grab your mother's keys we're leaving," but he sounds so resigned, you don't believe him. "Ready to Start," raises the stakes "If the business men drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would/Then I guess I'll just begin again.." but still shows no fight. "City With No Children," features exultant rhythm guitar and bass unison but still describes a "private prison." There are multiple references to a semi-apocalyptic suburban war that has already been fought, dividing people into tribes. It's a potent vision of alienation, but the war is an internal one as well, between the point of view of an alienated teen and a nostalgic adult. "By the time we met the times had already changed," Butler sings in "We Used To Wait," twisting Dylan's classic lines to perfectly convey the conflict.
Regine Chassagne shows up on "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" the album's most propulsive tune that recalls Blondie's "Heart of Glass." It bounces and bubbles with driving synths But even here, she's singing "Living in the sprawl/Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/And there's no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights."
So is it a masterpiece? Well, yes. Although there are a handful of songs that are merely very good, the great stuff so perfectly lays out the corporate deadening of our worldview, that even though the message is bleak, there's something rejuvenating about hearing it described in such recognizable detail. There's no "Wake Up" here. Arcade Fire are leaving it up to us.-dan siegler
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MP3: "The Suburbs"
Arcade Fire on Myspace