If Arcade Fire’s recent and surprisingly underwhelming Oxegen headliner did anything, it quite possibly put things in perspective. While many of us had them pinned as returning heroes, the truth was that they clearly meant a hell of a lot less to the masses than Jay-Z, Eminem and even Paolo Nutini. While that may have not been so much of shock, the fact that they were largely unable to stir those that were there was more worrying.
Perspective is also a handy tool when approaching The Suburbs. Come to it expecting the quintessential modern alternative rock record and you will depart disappointed, as will those looking for the sheer rush of parts of Funeral. It starts off with the meandering title track and louder but ineffectual ‘Ready To Start’. Spread out over a frankly excessive 16 tracks and 65 minutes, The Suburbs is a record that initially struggles to hold your attention. Put it on in the background and it is very unlikely that you’ll be stopped in your tracks. There are no epic call to arms, nothing designed to woo those floating mainstream voters. What there is a string of songs that require a deal of work on the listener’s part, not because they are particularly difficult but because their true nature takes a while to unearth.
‘Modern Man’ picks the record up on track three, a simple number that belies a darker heart. It’s a theme that runs through the album, with lyrics constantly referencing the past, doubt and a yearning for a better future. The Suburbs isn’t exactly gloomy, but it certainly isn’t joyful either. It does rock though. ‘Empty Room’ and ‘Month Of May’ are ferocious and energised, which suits them well. They’re able to do subtle too, with the gorgeous ‘City With No Children’ seemingly based around the riff from ‘Street Fighting Man’ and painting a forlorn picture of life ‘”in a private prison”.
The problem with The Suburbs is that the fine songs are themselves trapped in an album that often simply underperforms. It’s a fine line between the tracks that blossom over time and the ones that simply don’t work but it’s one that Arcade Fire cross on too many occasions here. When they cut loose towards the album’s close, they are dizzyingly brilliant. ‘We Used To Wait’ and ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ both take them into new, electronic directions and are superb. The latter in particular is a glorious Europop-style tune (no really) and a reminder that our faith is not unjustified. Somewhere amongst all this lies a fantastic 40 minute record but as a whole, The Suburbs is fine – nothing more, nothing less. Time for that perspective then. The Arcade Fire are a good band, not yet a great one. If they can learn a to focus their vision, however, that status may be round the corner.
Listen to the album here.