Lost in The Suburbs: How We Failed Arcade Fire

Nick Sylvester | August 25th, 2010

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

I don’t read much rock criticism except the stuff my friends write, but for whatever reason I was curious to see reviews of The Suburbs, the new album by Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire. If I’m being upfront, this album impresses the hell out of me. I wanted to see what paid professionals thought of the album’s bigger curve balls: the extra ninth beat in the verses of “Modern Man”; the Suicide-like moves on post-punk number “Month Of May,” complete with tape delay and Vega yelp and disoriented drum sounds; in general, how Win Butler has become a better vocalist with every album, less reliant on the affected vibrato of Funeral, less ‘on’ the mic too. The album is full of specific decisions, off-kilter reference points, subtle gestures in the production, all in service of one question: How can I, the musician, make this melody sound familiar but surprising? What do I need to scoff up a bit to make this thing work?

From one paid professional, I learned about The Suburbs’ “impressively fervent majesty.” Another paid professional wrote: “In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety’.” A paid professional at a music recommendation website got a few toes wet, reporting that in “We Come To Wait,” “staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety.” What I learned from the reviews, which were mostly very positive, was that The Suburbs recalls songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young — probably the similarities in subject matter and Butler’s voice and the acoustic guitar strumming. The album is 16 songs long with an hour runtime, which of course means it is ambitious. The band must be attempting to make a grand statement about suburb life; yet somehow this is also “their most straightforward work to date.”

More than liking this album — and I’m not saying they don’t derive actual physical pleasure from listening — the paid professionals seem to like what the album signifies. The themes and reference points and present-day contexts have lined up like planets in a solar system. The reviews wrote themselves.

From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities.

There are a few people not digging Arcade Fire, this album, whatever, as much as I or others do. Rob Harvilla at the Voice wishes the band was funnier, which is one way to say he thinks Butler is a corny dude. (I think the chorus of “Rococo” is sardonic and hilarious, on the right side of “humor in music,” but whatever.) On the flip is Bob Christgau, who likes The Suburbs fine but misses when Butler was more urgent and explicit about his politics, when we knew who the they were. Either way. There are situations when lyrics are deal-breakers. Even in the most rah-rah reviews of The Suburbs, critics were more than happy to hang dry Butler’s words, as if negativity and specificity in this regard gave weight to their otherwise nebulous praise.

Which is the issue here: The most prominent paid professionals will not give me reasons why they like these songs as compositions, productions, performances — anything other than as signifiers of various contexts that sit well with them. No explanation of mechanics, how the songs surprise in new ways, but delight in the old ones. Maybe that makes me the last boy scout — wanting to talk about these things, to geek out about the different kinds of knots the band had to tie, so to speak. Songs like the Hold Steady’s, where lyrics are heavier in the balance, seem to get these people more quickly out of their tents. Maybe good lyrics are easier to dance about.

Do I want record reviews to read like the Tape-Op messageboards? Not exactly, but here’s where we stand if professional writings about one of the year’s best pop albums indicate anything: Rock criticism as ‘criticism of music’ remains a non-fiction fan-fiction enterprise. It is a flaccid, indecisive farce — neither informed nor informative nor entertaining — when the only thing it can say about the song “Deep Blue” is that it “doesn’t develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought.” No mention anywhere of the genius move it was to nick the intro of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a song about technological alienation, a song that never makes its way to the beach.

Call it the Context of All Context: From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities. If we’re lucky, we are treated to some new-crit flight of fancy in which the critic shows how the album resonates in the larger world and vice versa, or probably something about gender issues. Or maybe, if we’re really lucky, the critic completely and deliberately misunderstands an artist’s intent in such a way that it doesn’t so much explicate the music as it does give us new context altogether. A stunt review — an acknowledgment of rock criticism’s failure as music criticism — at least has the decency to entertain, though good luck finding someone to pay you for one of those. Cue staccato minor-key chords.