It might not be Funeral, but at least it’s more inherently interesting to me than Neon Bible. The reason for that, simply, is that the songwriting has improved. (Anyone who disagrees with that should imagine songs from these albums being played only with an acoustic guitar… There aren’t nearly as many two-chord songs on here!) The theme of this album is centered around nostalgia, specifically about Win and William Butler’s upbringing in the Houston suburbs. I can imagine what inspired them since I’ve grown up in a place similar to the Houston suburbs—it was a boring and sterile place, but I inevitably found ways to pass the time. …And how could I ever regret those times, since it was the only childhood I’ve ever known?
But anyway, these songs are brilliant; I like all of them. I like some more than I like others, but there’s not a single stinker in this 16-track album. It opens with what’s for my money the strongest song of the lot: the title track. At its core, it’s a simple piano pop song with a catchy riff and an excellent melody to match. As Arcade Fire always do, they drench it with such thick atmosphere that it feels like I should be able to cut through it with a butter knife. You can expect to hear a ton of songs filled to the brim with drowned-out strings, fuzzy synthesizers, distorted and bendy guitars, and an assortment of other instruments that I have trouble identifying.
Another one of my favorite songs of the disc is “Empty Room,” which is about as intensely rockin’ as these guys ever get. Naturally they don’t achieve that quite like most bands would other than using fast-paced drums and thumpy bass; the principle instrument is some subdued fuzz guitar and some intense, tension-building staccato notes from the violinist. They do take the opportunity to rock out in a more conventional way in “Month of May,” which is a simple rock ‘n’ roller with rapid, glam drums and an uninvolved melody. However, it entertains me immensely and its odd closeted, claustrophobic mix gives it a certain post-modern personality. They do the same thing with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” which at the surface seems like an overly conventional synth-pop song, but it doesn’t take me many more listens to discover that there is something else lurking beneath its surface. And whatever that is, I have yet to figure out! (Man! Writing about albums like this is tough! These songs appeal to me, but I can’t always tell you why.)
“Rococo” might be the strangest song of the lot with an extremely subdued and detached riff and incessant chantings of Rococo, which is a name I’m guessing they chose for how it sounds more than what it means. It starts out spooky, but by the end those staccato violins among other instruments build up a terrifying mansion from a ’30s horror film. Some of the background instrumentals sound twisty at times, like they’re aping something from the Middle East. “Sprawl I (Flatland)” also reminds me of an old horror film, and I love it for that; it has a beautiful minor chord sequence, gorgeous melody, and some very arresting strings that I hear welling up in the background. It’s quite a fascinating number.
Another song I’d like to cherry pick is “Half Light I,” which is utterly glorious in how it builds up. That song, more than almost anything else, reminds me of listening to Funeral; I’d wager an entire flame-war with a hipster by saying that I like that song about as much as I like anything from that album.“City With No Children” and “Modern Man” are first-class subdued pop-rockers if you’re into that sort of thing (I know I am)! But as I said before, Arcade Fire might do simplicity, but they don’t do it without also giving us a series of rather beautiful background embellishments that gives it personality and atmosphere.
The downside to this album is that it’s quite long (more than 60 minutes), and it would have surely benefited from a trim. (Didn’t rock ‘n’ roll bands used to trim less inspired songs off albums and then release them years later in a rarities collection? Don’t Arcade Fire think people would be interested in rarity discs from them in whatever the equivalent of the mid-’80s will be for them?) The result is that this album gets tiring to listen to, especially in its second half where there lurks a number of songs that I didn’t bother cherry-picking for the main review body. Nonetheless, I’ve been listening to this album very consistently over the last few months and I’ve enjoyed it without feeling the dire need to skip anything. The songs are all at least well-written enough for them to have earned at least A-minuses in my book. I certainly didn’t give the same treatment to Neon Bible. I didn’t even do that for Funeral, even though that album certainly had more sweeping and unforgettable moments in it.