there beneath the blue suburban sky. . .
The new Arcade Fire album is an extremely pleasant surprise. After emerging on a wave of hype six years ago with their spectacular debut Funeral, the Canadian orchestral pop septet lost their way somewhat with the slightly disappointing follow-up Neon Bible. Now, it appears that they're spectacularly back on track.
The Suburbs is a superb record that'll be jostling for an album of the year accolade this Christmas. It also nails one of rock 'n' roll's fundamental truths: the genre was born from suburbia and all the alienation and frustrated romance that goes with it.
The opening line of the third Arcade Fire album goes, "In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we'd never survive." Frontman Win Butler contends that the album "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs -- it's a letter from the suburbs.
"A lot of my heroes, from Bob Dylan to Joe Strummer, were suburban kids who had to pretend they were train-hoppers their whole lives," he recently revealed. "Talking about an experience and not make-believe is what we're doing on The Suburbs."
The opening scene of the Anton Corbijn film Control features the young Ian Curtis returning to Macclesfield from a weekend expedition to the city to purchase a David Bowie album. It beautifully captures a teenager from a Cheshire suburb seeking inspiration and escape from the pop genius of south-east London suburbia. Both Bowie and Iggy Pop, a product of a trailer park in Michigan, inspired the young Curtis to form Joy Division and pen some of post-punk's most influential and timeless songs.
Arcade Fire poetically explore the suburban phenomenon. When the band were taking a year off after a huge tour, a friend emailed Win Butler with a picture of him and his daughter in his local mall of the same far-flung suburb of Houston, Texas, in which Butler grew up with his brother and fellow band member Will. Win encouraged his band to retrace their suburban upbringings during their post-tour hiatus. This led to the creation of a concept album of sorts, which fortunately lives up to such lofty ambitions.
One of the numerous standout songs from the 16-track collection is 'We Used to Wait' -- a stirring meditation on how written communication has changed completely in the 21st century.
"I used to write letters, I used to sign my name," Win sings. "It may seem strange now how we used to wait for letters to arrive. But what's stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive." Only time will tell if this is as good an album as their breakthrough opus Funeral that poignantly documented various family bereavements that occurred within the band. Neon Bible fell a little flat as it came across as bombastic and brimming with nebulous angst.
This time around, Arcade Fire have rediscovered both their mojo and unique poetic sensibilities.
The Texan/Canadian band occupies a unique position in the indie rock landscape. When their coffers swelled after the global success of Funeral, they bought their own studio. Both Neon Bible and The Suburbs were paid for with their own money. The band employs Universal solely as distributors, making them an entirely independent and extremely lucrative entity. The only other band doing this on that sort of scale is Radiohead.
It helps that Arcade Fire are a phenomenal live act. In 2005, they played a sensational show at the Electric Picnic. I was lucky enough to catch them on St Patrick's Day that year in London in front of 600 people, including Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, the provocative comedian and writer Chris Morris and Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede.
In January 2007, they played a series of low-key dates in a tiny church in Westminister. The show I caught on that run was one of the best live performances I've ever witnessed. Win led the band outside to the steps of the church and they performed their calling card anthem 'Wake Up', acoustically, shouting into the London night.
It was one of the most euphoric and uplifting live experiences I've ever had. Passers-by were equally bewildered and thrilled. Smith Square residents peered out of their windows with quizzical delight as a little corner of Westminister temporarily ground to a complete halt, bearing delirious witness to a tiny slice of musical history. Music wags at the time dubbed it "the Great Arcade Fire of London".
The good news is Arcade Fire are playing Dublin's O2 on December 5 with guests Vampire Weeekend. Until then, check out The Suburbs. I'd be very surprised if anyone or anything else surpasses it in 2010.