One of my favorite things to experience from great albums is a sense of place. Sometimes it’s over-the-top and therefore a failure (I’m apparently in the minority, but I just can’t get into Exile on Main Street). Sometimes it’s more subtle, but therefore more compelling. Every time I’m in London, The Clash’s London Calling or just The Clash course through my mind – and when I’m back here in the states, the opening siren-guitar of “London Calling” transports me back to the polite chaos of London’s streets every time. Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville just is early-90’s Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, the world that’s eulogized so well on High Fidelity.
So it was with both curiosity and trepidation that I listened to the (as far as I can tell) universally acclaimed new Arcade Fire album The Suburbs. The curiosity came because, as I said, a lot of my favorite music evokes a specific place and a specific time – not just of when I listened to it, but also of what its more intrinsic features bring to mind. The trepidation arose because, well, the title seemed a bit obvious and what I’ve heard from Arcade Fire before has been a bit overbearing – I enjoyed Neon Bible but at times, it was so droning and serious – “the white man’s lament” as I heard a caller on Sound Opinions ridicule it.
I’m happy to say that upon listening to The Suburbs a second time, I was just absolutely dumbstruck with a really unfamiliar emotion – especially so when I got around to what seemed like the best song of the bunch, “We Used to Wait.” Music that’s this lyrically driven is sometimes an uphill battle for me – I don’t really like albums to read like op-ed columns or, well, my own blog entries – again, that all seems too obvious. But something resonated in this – something I’ll try to report in more depth in a later post.
This resonance got me to thinking – and since my pseudo-Hegelian mind often thinks in threes – I’ve decided to dedicate a three-part series to three great albums: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (1988), the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), and finally, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (2010). At different times, the first two albums have totally enthralled me, in spite of their length and not-always-approachable natures. I’ll try to elucidate that in later posts.
But in a nutshell – Sonic Youth shows us the unreconstructed hipster world of the 1980’s lower east side, as well as its west-coast equivalent in Berkeley and San Francisco (“I took a look into the Haight – it made me feel very up to date” from “The Sprawl”). It starts with the instantly engrossing “Teenage Riot.” It reaches its cacophonous height in “Total Trash.” It ends in just the awesome thrashing of “the trilogy” – the final three songs originally forming the final side of the second record.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ magnum opus (perhaps even maximum opus) brings me to the mid-90’s quasi-suburban “land of a thousand guilts and poured cement” (“1979”) of Chicago, “the city by the lake, the place where you were born” (“Tonight, Tonight”). It’s sort of already-post-grunge grunge, with both devastatingly honest ballads (“Thirty-Three,” “Into the Arms of Sleep,” Stumbleine” and grotesque nihilistic noise-rock posing (“XYU”). Woven throughout is a piano melody (introduced on the title track on disk 1) that, perhaps most would be embarrassed to acknowledge, is beautiful.
… and The Suburbs is a much more dire, but somehow also at times hopeful picture of the totally eviscerated world of the 21st century exurbs – “sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/that we can never get away from the sprawl/living in the sprawl/dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/and there’s no end in sight/I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.” In case that sounds too preachy – listen to the song – “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains”) and maybe you’ll see what I was feeling when I heard it.
All three albums, I think it’s fair to call concept albums. That’s a notoriously difficult term, one that can also lead bands to some real embarrassment and over-reach – but if you really take the retro step of putting them in your CD or record player – or even listening to their tracks in order for the more-than-an-hour experiences – your musical experience (and maybe your life) will be richer for it.