Beer and Pavement

This is not a record review

Posted in Records by SM on August 17, 2010

So, I’ve been working on this post for a while. It’s not taking so long because I’m crafting it. Rather, it’s taking so long because I haven’t had time to work on it. In the meantime, there have been ideas for posts pass me by. So, I’m publishing this thing without hyperlinks, pics, or footnotes. Agree with me. Tell me where I’m wrong. Just don’t hold me to any standard set on this blog in previous posts.

Or at least this is not one I should have written weeks ago. I mean, record reviews are dead, right? No one reads them anymore. And when they’re written, they say very little about the music. Besides, we all just check the number or count the stars. Who has time to see if someone else thinks you should buy the record? Buy it or don’t. We don’t need record reviews and we sure as hell shouldn’t write them.

I used to buy records based on what was written in the back of a Rolling Stone or Spin. And when I bought the record without reading a single review, I’d sometimes read the reviewer’s take after the fact to see if at least one person heard it the way I did. I’d often find a disconnect and simply move on to another source of reviews that was closer to my own opinions and tastes. My infatuation with a magazine’s record reviews never lasted long. I eventually turned to online sources for reviews such as Pitchfork, but even that was short-lived.

And like assholes, we all started our own blogs where we pushed our own reviews onto the world. So, now, instead of less record reviews through which to sort, there are now thousands or even millions more. Plus, we had to consider our own reviews. What would my blog say about this band? What will my Facebook status say tomorrow about this record? The review has taken over.

But I don’t like to look at it that way.

The way I see it is that we now have a new platform to discuss art, especially music. No longer do I have to take it from a professional journalist or a punk at P4k. Hell, I don’t even have to blindly accept what a friend has to say in his/her blog post. At the least, I can look elsewhere or leave a comment. At the most, I can publish my own thoughts. Either way, what is created in this (cyber)space is a forum for discussion. No longer is it a one-way distribution. The exchange comes from multiple directions and is inclusive. Is this still a review? I don’t know, but it’s certainly more interesting.

I’m not going to review Arcade Fire’s newest record, The Suburbs. I’m not going to tell you why it’s great or where it falls short. In the end, you’ll make up your own mind. You’ll buy it or not. It doesn’t make any difference to me.

Besides, is it really possible to judge an Arcade Fire album fairly these days? With the president set by “Funeral”, it’s hard to imagine any album could measure up. When I saw Pitchfork’s review, reading just the score as I do these days, I was impressed with its showing of 8.6. Then I read this take and questioned the entire thing, album and review.

But who really cares?

When one plays The Suburbs, it is instantly clear that Win Butler and co. have written their own review. You see, the album isn’t literally about the suburbs. The suburbs are a metaphor for succeeding, for making it. There was a time when every working stiff’s dream was to make enough money to house his family in the ‘burbs. Sure, it was the pinnacle of nuclear familial status, but there was also a certain sense of selling out. Arcade Fire has to deal with that sort of quandary as well.

The opening title track lets the listener know right away that this is not your youth’s Arcade Fire. It’s a mature pop sound that either invites or turns you off. No matter, because this intro and the following tracks of synth-lite pop and Boss-centric dramatics is just the aesthetics, something Arcade Fire used to use like few others ever could. This pop sheen is just a fresh coat of paint or new siding to cover the charm of uncertainty below.

What Arcade Fire does with the content of their latest album is break down how said record will be perceived, how they will be perceived. The band has written the review for us. There’s no need to write our own or give any credence to Rolling Stone‘s take. The band tells you exactly what to make of The Suburbs throughout the record.

The death of anything punk, alternative, or indie is proclaimed over a pop piano playing of what can only be described as the band’s Billy Joel moment. The song breaks down the divisions of culture created in the 70’s at the hands of Sex Pistols and Stooges, longing for the time to just simply enjoy life and art without the inevitable judgment of hipsters and bloggers. This is the first time Arcade Fire rejects youth, something I never thought I’d hear them do.

The second track, “Ready to Start,” continues to toy with youthful cynicism and shows us a band that is both aware of what it’s doing and unconcerned with what you think of it. “Modern Man” asserts Arcade Fire’s rightful place in (modern) dad-rock, albeit rather cool dad-rock. You know, it’s touch being a middle-aged white dude, living in the suburbs and all that. [winking emoticon here] If anything, these two tracks hint at the themes and aesthetics to come.

A full rejection of hipsterdom comes next, but it’s more than what Pitchfork says it is. “Rococo” references a couple of important cultural moments. The first of these moments is also known as “late Baroque”, possibly a response to the band’s silly and somewhat lazy label of “Baroque pop” or simply an assertion of their artistic transition into something different. The original Rococo movement was a significant transition in European culture. The “other” Rococo was a band in the midst of the 70’s punk and progressive rock scenes. Because of either timing, energy, or a combination of the two, Rococo were often lumped in with the The Clash and Sex Pistols. However, they were very different from the punk rock of the day. Both of these meanings hint at something way deeper to the Arcade Fire sound than simply dissing some hipsters.

“Empty Room” certainly starts out like your typical Arcade Fire track with the strings and anthemic guitar feedback. The track celebrates the band’s breaking from their aesthetic shackles, proclaiming, “When I’m by myself, I can be myself,” a typical sentiment from anyone trying so hard to not be what everyone proclaims them to be.

In “City with No Children”, the band provides another take on the youthful perspective of their music. With the amount of information available to kids, their primary audience, the band sadly sees its listeners as cynics well before they should be. The result is that they can’t return to their unknown origins. There is no way this record will be judged on its own merit. There will always be the Arcade Fire mystique created by classic debuts, Pitchfork 10’s, and YouTube videos of the band playing among their fans.

Despite all the assertions of change in Win Butler’s voice, “Half Light I” assures the listener that this is still the same old Arcade Fire you’ve grown to love. They’re just expanding, taking on another appearance in the half light. The abrupt shift in aesthetics of The Suburbs is sort of like a terror twilight, that moment before the sun goes down when things just feel ominous. Interestingly, another reference to the Rococo period happens as the band sings, “They hide the ocean in a shell,” as artists of the time used shells as a popular motif for their designs.

In the track’s continuation, “Half Light II,” Arcade Fire contemplates their shift and development as a band. It’s a track that moves them forward as they grasp at whatever magic brought them together. Also, the aesthetics provided some huge 80’s synthesizers pull the listener to go along with this change.

“Suburban War” is where Arcade Fire lets you go your merry way in case you’ve given up on them at this point. They realize you’ve grown apart from them or vice versa. Here’s where the metaphor of the suburbs as success, particularly in the music industry, hit hardest as sides are chosen, divided by almost exclusively by musical tastes.

And as the band came to terms with this shift and the inevitable loss of a portion of their audience, they set out to write a record. “Month of May” takes the listener to the recording process. The band made their commitment to record this album in an uncompromising style. Cynicism and apathy are called out again (“The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight”) as the band’s groove pleads with the listener to simply move his body, enjoy the moment.

I’m not going to continue through the track list from here. This is beginning to resemble a review and that was not my intent. I think you get the point. Arcade Fire reviewed the album for you. It’s extremely meta. they’ve rejected all those who would turn their nose up at this incredible rock record.

Sure, the punk ethos is gone from the surface and the anthems are not as anthemic, but this album can stand on its own. It can stand up to your skepticism, your expectations.

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4 Responses

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  1. Steve said, on August 20, 2010 at 4:20 am

    I really enjoyed this, thank you.

    “Either way, what is created in this (cyber)space is a forum for discussion. No longer is it a one-way distribution. The exchange comes from multiple directions and is inclusive.”

    This is what I find so exciting about the internet, is why I work in social media-y circles, and why I love blogging and tweeting. The real shift from top-down to something more organic and democratic is exciting and is worth noting and treasuring.

    While in terms of sound, ‘The Suburbs’ is not particularly revolutionary or new, in concept it does seem very much an album of our times, and they are a particularly modern band too in the way that they have struck out independently and very much do their own thing.

    Still, ‘The Suburbs’ was a rare beast for me, in that I looked forward to its actual real release, and rushed out and bought a copy. I haven’t felt that anticipation for some time. It took me back to my teenage years, rushing home with an album, poring over the liner notes as I listened for the first time. I guess with internet leaks, that feeling and that experience will get less and less common.

  2. doublewordscore said, on August 21, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Enjoyed the post. Very good review. (Is it possible to write about popular music–or movies or literature–without any form of criticism? Maybe if you’re doing a biographical piece on the artist.) I liked the footnote-free post, too. A pleasant, straight-through read.

    The debate out here has been whether The Suburbs is better than High Violet, the National’s new one. Opinion’s split, but I fall into the High Violet camp.

  3. Ray Cummings said, on August 22, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    An all-new blog, eh? Not a bad idea.

    And no offense, but I kinda hate the Arcade Fire.

  4. […] Arcade Fire’s Suburbs is the safe call, but is it too safe? This album is solid from front to back and possibly the group’s most complete effort thus far. Sure, it doesn’t have the hits like on Funeral or the complimentary pieces of Neon Bible, but it is something neither of those albums could be. Sometimes, the most obvious pick for a top-10 list is the best one. […]

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