"In the suburbs I learned to drive"
There's nothing in the new Arcade Fire that interests me as much as the idea of a third album. And frankly, that's because there isn't anything that interesting in Arcade Fire's third LP The Suburbs. As an album, its comprised of a couple solid tracks, a handful of missed opportunities, a few bad production choices and enough references to kids and cars to make a ZZ Top record. The good news is that there's nothing bloated about this album. The bad news is there's nothing very powerful at all. Neon Bible has diminished in my own playlist, but there's still a power to it. The Suburbs is limp-wristed.
Could this have something to do with the material? The idea of the suburbs has been a strong thematic center in most art for the past -- well since suburbs started to appear. Just ask Richard Yates, David Lynch, or an early Rivers Cuomo. The detachment of middle-class, of being "out here" with "nothing to do" -- it's a breeding ground for the kind of jaded angst that makes poets out of every teenage kid (albeit usually bad bad poets). Still, it's becoming an antiquated idea, esp. given that you can get on a laptop, hack into the Pentagon and, oh, I don't know, sell secret war documents to the NY Times. Or just post them on your blog. For example.
Not only that, but one of Arcade Fire's lyrics from their first album, Funeral, managed to evoke that suburban desire for catharsis in a such an evocative manner that you have to wonder why they returned to the well-groomed lawns and white fences: "When Daddy comes home / you always start a fight / so the neighbors can dance / in the police disco lights." That's from "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)."
"Ro-coco, Ro-coco, Ro-coco"
Arcade Fire does one thing really well. It's that thing when they hit the overdramatic chords -- you've got all instruments blaring, Win's voice is trying to cover it all, the violins are shrieking. You know what I'm talking about. There's no doubt they're good at that, b/c they're such a phenomenal live band. Arcade Fire's bombast rarely rings false for this reason -- they can sell it live. And that's what really matters.
So, on first listen, The Suburbs sounds like a step in a new direction. Particularly a track like "Month of May," which operates in a similar way as "When the War Came" in The Decemberists' The Crane Wife LP, a step that seems out of the band's usual playlist and oddly derivative at the same time. However, both tracks (which come off kinda of like gestures at alt-rock) are exceptions that prove the rule. Colin Meloy wants to write about Japanese fairy tales while running on the fumes of Fleetwood Mac. And Win Butler & Arcade Fire want to... want to...um...gosh, I'm not sure what he wants in this album.
There are some other indications that this album may be a pivotal point for Arcade Fire. For one thing, there's a lot of perspective shifting in the lyrics. Which at first is kind of interesting, but the more you listen and hear the lyrics refer to the song before, the cutesy it becomes and thus the less effective. For example "Rococo" starts off right where the previous track, "Modern Man," left off: "Lets go downtown watch the modern kids / Lets go downtown and talk to the modern kids ... They use big words they don't understand." In this Butler has taken the mantle of the modern man and then turns around and makes fun of it in the next tune. It's some nifty songwriting slight of hand, after all the word he makes fun of is "Rococo."
But in the end, the songs are doing the same kind of thing that they're doing in Funeral but now, its more polished and produced, more cohesive, less likely to blow up. And songwriting without an element of danger is the epitome of the negative connotation of "Suburban."
"Now our lives are moving fast / Hope something pure can last"
The preceding lyric is exactly why the idea of the third album is more interesting to me than this particular third album -- The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. We've seen an number of albums this year -- LCD Soundsystem, Broken Social Scene, Beach House. All of which manage to raise the bar right where they left it (with the probable exception of Beach House, whose 2nd album I didn't care for so the third one looked really, really good in comparison). These groups matched expectations and in doing so expectations were not met. We expected these albums to light the world on fire. Now, more than halfway thru 2010, you look around and don't see any smoke.
Instead of putting the blame on the artists, I think that a lot of the reason for this lies with the fans. There are going to be two camps about The Suburbs. The first camp is going to bite the hand that feeds, say that this album is no Funeral, no Neon Bible. The second camp will praise the album for its attributes either b/c the fans are new or love the band so much that they can go along with anything new. What both camps show is a crisis of fandom: we either have no memory or too much memory. We can let go or we can't. Neither group ever takes an objective look at the band or their own role in listening to the band. Because at the end of the day, fans are fickle, don't want their heros to change and bands, by nature, want to grow -- do something different, make something new. In this tug of war, The Suburbs is the latest battlefield. And for this album it seems that its a tug of war that Arcade Fire is lost in as well. Unable (or unwilling) to actually forge ahead, we have something that seems (and here's the most damning word) safe. Not safe for our sake, but for their own.