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The Everybody Needs an Editor, Perhaps Terry Gilliam Could Introduce You to One Award

By Lindsay Zoladz | 7 December 2010

Arcade Fire
The Suburbs
(Merge; 2010)

The Arcade Fire employ two members whose full-time job is to wear helmets and hit things really hard, sometimes including each other’s helmets_—not that you would realize any of this while listening to _The Suburbs. I don’t blame the songs so much as I blame the way they’re sequenced, though I will blame a few of them for existing at all and completely wrecking the soaring energy of what could have been a pretty aerodynamic ten- or eleven-song album.

Some of the Arcade Fire’s finest songs are the ones that don’t warrant helmets at all, and The Suburbs is no exception. On the title track, the muted and cordial Bacharach chords quake with subtle intensity as Win Butler sings a refrain of such succinct gut-wrenchery (“Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling”) that I always feel a little bit duped by it and the goosebumps it invariably wreaks. And then there’s “Ready to Start,” four-and-a-half minutes of spirited pop that leave me renewed in that teenage feeling that life is just one big, unfairly stacked pick-up basketball game of Punks vs. Jocks, or, in a more professional league, Art School Kids vs. Businessmen. When the Arcade Fire are on, they have the power to reanimate the world with these scrappy, youthful convictions, and at their very best they give you that feeling that the Businessmen are about to eat shit.

But after that initial rush The Suburbs doesn’t really build to anything—the rest of the songs oscillate between faceless intensity and faceless quiet, each feeling like a rehashing of a better song that’s already come before it on the album. There are exceptions (“Half Light II”) but their intensity feels blunted by the weight of all the filler. By the time Butler repeats the title track’s opening proclamation, “In the suburbs I learned to drive / And you told me we’d never survive,” in “Suburban War,” it feels less like an illuminating key to the record’s narrative and more like a needless repetition of a feeling we’ve already moved way past.

But here’s the most frustrating thing about The Suburbs: its listless sequencing is a total fakeout—I’ve seen the band conjure straight-up magic from some of these songs. This summer at Merriweather Post Pavilion (about which, to justify that cheesy thing I just said about magic, I will add to the Animal Collective mythology: it totally is Indie Rock Xanadu! And the Olivia Newton-John one, duh!), Butler barreled through songs like “Month of May,” “Empty Room,” and even the seemingly banal “Modern Man” with an intensity that made his Joe Strummer haircut feel, for fleeting moments, truly deserved. And during a performance of one of their best and most beatific songs yet, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”—a track buried at the end of an album too meandering to properly build to the cathartic climax that this song should be—Regine Chassange sung and twirled a ribbon dancer with such conviction that at that moment I wanted nothing more in the world than to quit my job, go to art school, and say fuck all to anybody who thought that victory was more complicated than that. I just wish the record had made me feel that way too.