Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Some albums are easier to listen to and like from the get-go than others. I listen to any new album in a variety of test environments to see how it does (and because this happens to correspond to my normal daily activities). Those environments primarily include: 1) running; 2) walking to/from work and riding the train; and 3) working in the kitchen. It’s hard to choose which of those activities is the most exciting, but the one that I certainly notice the most is the first. As I plod through the marathon training program, I spend about five days of each week gearing up mentally for my long weekend run. Early during this training process, I hatched the great idea that I would listen to a new album during each long weekend run, which would serve a dual purpose of giving me something to look forward to and (primarily) distracting me a bit from my run. This backfired the second week I tried it when I had what’s known as a “bad run” and thereafter didn’t like the album I associated with it. Since then, I have tried audiobooks, podcasts and other gimmicks in an effort to trick my brain into not noticing that I was running. Those failed, and I came back to the new album idea but with an increased awareness of the possible pitfalls.

I give you this background because I believe you often remember where you were when you first heard a particular song or, in this case, album. Last Saturday, I set out on my long run (please note that I did not defer this run to Sunday as I am apt to do), excited to listen to Arcade Fire’s highly anticipated album, The Suburbs, which was released last week. The conditions were all working in my favor. It was a “step-back” week (read: shorter distance), the humidity was relatively low, the temperatures moderate and there was a slight cloud cover. In addition, Arcade Fire was performing at Lollapalooza last weekend AND their album was #1 on iTunes when I downloaded it (at presstime #2). It all amounted to the perfect musical storm! Unfortunately, due to my run the album is one big blur in my head and has taken a bit of effort to overcome.

If you’re listening to someone like Sheryl Crow or Jack Johnson, you will not likely be surprised by what one of their albums sounds like, even from the first listen. They’re pretty easy to enjoy. My experience has been that a group like Arcade Fire takes a little more effort. The payoff, however, is in a greater appreciation for the depth of the lyrics and the unique sound. By Tuesday of this week, when I had spent about three days listening to The Suburbs in a mostly background capacity and the songs were beginning to emerge on a more individual level (and I should note that the album has 16 songs on it), I realized I needed to get serious about listening to it. Therefore, I propped my eyes open on the train, sacraficing my morning nap, and really listened to the entire album, and I do believe it was worth that investment.

I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the content of The Suburbs because I knew from listening to an interview with two of Arcade Fire’s band members (brothers Win and Will Butler) that it was actually inspired from their own suburban experience as children. As youngsters, they moved from a fairly rural small town to suburban Houston and experienced some significant culture shock. Because I work with a large number of city folk who frankly have a superiority complex about their addresses, I am sometimes a bit defensive about my own suburban 'hood and was concerned that this album would be an exercise in bashing its namesake.

What I found, however, is that while much of the album has a somewhat somber sound to it, it’s more reflective and observational than anything- I actually found it really interesting, not having given the suburbs much consideration in general. Some of the songs have sort of a nostalgic sound to the lyrics; others are more contemplative (what people might really be like behind closed doors, for instance). There are others that are more outwardly judgmental; there is not one but two songs entitled Sprawl, one painting a picture of “mountains beyond mountains” of shopping malls- probably a valid point. Some of the songs are upbeat, others quieter, some have a really pretty sound to them while others have a harder edge. The diversity, including both male and female vocals (Win's wife is in the group), will keep you interested. Now that I’ve listened carefully and considered the songs individually I don’t know how they all blended together for me on that first listen. Even if you don't love the sound of every song, I think you can definitely appreciate the album overall.

That being said, I do have some faves:

  • The Suburbs (title track) - kind of a ragtime, sing-song sounds to it. Sidenote: there is a second version of the song (very short) at the end of of the album that is very sweet and pretty.
  • Deep Blue - I love the music in this one, very diverse and kind of mellow
  • We Used to Wait - to me, this one seems to be contemplating the changing times. It's kind of a look back to how things used to be versus how they are now
I highly recommend the title track, which I think has quite a bit of mainstream appeal. Try one today. Enjoy!

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