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Overanalysis – Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ – Part 1/4: Now I’m Ready To Start

Welcome to a new segment of this shambolic blog that I’m tentatively calling ‘Overanalysis’. The basic premise is that I take a record or an artist and examine their music as far as my brain will let me, trying to draw crazy threads across lyrics, melodies and atmosphere in the hope of finding some extra layer of meaning kind of like in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ but hopefully with a bit less schizophrenia. Obviously it’s only worth doing with truly great albums, and, having just heard their new song ‘Reflektor’, I remembered how Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was such a vital record. So to satiate my need for their music I decided to start the first Overanalysis here.

Warning: this will be long and this will seem like Bullshit to most of you. Nevertheless, enjoy.

“In the suburbs I / I learned to drive / And you told me we’d never survive / Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving.”

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Part 1 – Now I’m Ready To Start

In order to properly look at what’s going on inside The Suburbs, it’s important to look at where Arcade Fire were when they came to make it. Their debut album, Funeral, had become a cult classic and its successor Neon Bible was almost as well received; the band were becoming increasingly popular. They were favourably compared to R.E.M. as a band about to cross over from indie/alternative into mainstream festival headliner fame. This is significant for two reasons, the first being that for those first two albums they were able to be an underground band, songs like ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ are nearly a counter-cultural message for the cool kids: “we can live our misbehaviour”. Approaching album #3 Arcade Fire were now part of the mainstream, no longer simply taking shots from the sidelines. The second significance is that they risked losing the ‘edge’ that made them so precious to these cool kids: they were no longer an indie secret only known by a select few music fans. Both these aspects form a crucial part in the fabric of The Suburbs.

I was not a fan of Arcade Fire until well after The Suburbs came out. Being both lazy and an idiot, I had barely listened to their songs and the few times I did they did nothing for me. By the time I heard it, ‘Wake Up’ had already spawned a million other howled ‘woah’ choruses from dungaree-wearing morons making epic folk rock to sully its magic. ‘Intervention’ seemed too caught up in itself to reach me. But when a good friend finally persuaded me to give ‘Ready To Start’ a listen, I was forced into action. As the kind of person who can be won or lost by lyrics I was struck by hearing a band who could verbalise the contradictions they faced as musicians. “If the businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would / Then I guess I’ll just begin again / You say, ‘can we still be friends?'” Art School, where the great rebellious bands like The Clash and Gang of Four formed and played, fights the businessmen of the music industry of which Arcade Fire were now a part. This is a band literally asking their fans not to abandon them because of their success.

At this point a few people could call out the band as being whiny bastards. How horrible for Arcade Fire, having loads of success with their music, god, it must be awful. And you know what, they’re right… Almost. The next verse looks like it’s a ‘Rebellion (Lies)’-esque swipe at the mainstream from the side again: All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / ‘Cause it’s better than being alone.” Haha, isn’t that a hilarious takedown of all these people who listen to crap music, aren’t they all idiots… hang on… what do they mean, ‘better than being alone’? Who is really being sent up here? Is it kids who listen to pop music, or is it the alternative ones, the aforementioned ‘cool kids’ who live for the hype cycle of next band to ‘save music’ only to realise that each one is ‘just a band’… exactly the same conflict crops up again with ‘Rococo’ only two songs later: “they build it up just to burn it back down”. If ‘Ready To Start’ seemed like a daring jab at the fans who got them where they are, then ‘Rococo’ is a one-hit K.O. It’s shamefully clear who ‘the modern kids’ are, who ‘seem wild, but they are so tame’ and ‘will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand.’ If that isn’t the perfect description of the Pitchfork (who gave Funeral a 9.7/10) generation of indie-literate music fans then get off my website.

All of this comes together in ‘Month of May’ a song that directly addresses the idea of ‘making a record’. Ideas about writer’s block (‘Just when I knew what I wanted to say / A violent wind blew the wires away’) and fear (‘sounds like their screaming… the city was hit from above’) mingle with a commentary on, yet again, ‘the kids’. These kids are ‘standing with their arms folded tight’. This is a dual attack on cynicism, both of teenage angst and growing up (more on that later) and also one on people afraid to risk not looking cool. Arcade Fire don’t hate the fans they had that praised them even if the lyrics seem to mock them, they only mock the attitude that says that being first is better, that being popular is bad, that avoiding the mainstream makes you better than those that don’t. The culmination of this comes with the lines: “Some things are pure / some things are right / but the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight… Well I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light / but how you gonna lift it with your ARMS! FOLDED! TIGHT!” Just because some things aren’t pure (yes, the Black Eyed Peas suck), doesn’t mean cynicsim is the only response, it’s okay to believe in things, to not be afraid of letting the self go and emotionally connecting with something.

If that idea sounds familiar, you may have read the [gasp] Pitchfork review of Funeral in 2004, which declared: “So long as we’re unable or unwilling to fully recognize the healing aspect of embracing honest emotion in popular music, we will always approach the sincerity of an album like Funeral from a clinical distance…” This is Arcade Fire’s great accomplishment, and it’s what sets the stage for making The Suburbs a modern day Quadrophenia. They reject cynicism and the coolness of hiding from real, honest emotion. They know that they are making a record that their older fans might think of as leaving them behind, so they ask them to put down their facades and elitist outlooks and join them, not for Arcade Fire’s sake, but everyone’s sake.

I once read a far more articulate article than this one that examined how far post-modernism had infected modern culture. Nowadays pop artists like Katy Perry can be obvious and cheap, toy with overtly sexual and sexist marketing while seemingly being in on the joke that it’s crass and blatant. They can hide behind a sheen of ironic detachment to avoid facing serious questions, they know it’s bad but in this post-modernist world bad is allowed and you don’t want to be the guy that takes everything so seriously. But the article explores what happens when this starts to change:

The best way I can describe what I think comes next, in light of postmodernism, is the death of cool. The detachment and aloofness that defined cool are no longer palatable to younger generations. “Whatever,” followed by some glib deconstruction of motives, intent, and meaning, is no longer an acceptable response to an idea or question. Deconstruction is no longer an excuse for inaction or withdrawal.

Now the preferred response seems to be “I know you can’t trust it, I know you can’t be sure, but still…

With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire are reaching out to everyone. Yes, cynicism and detachment protect you from all the crap, but they protect you from truly investing yourself in something. This unhappiness of ‘I would rather be alone / than pretend I feel alright’, the fear that ‘the businessmen [will] drink my blood’ can only be stopped by abandoning cynicism. Better to be be wrong, than live in fear of being ‘uncool’, better to open your mind to big emotions, better to open the door and step out into the light. Now I’m ready to start.

Part 2: Suburban War (Innocence/Experience) [coming soon]

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A Christmas Film Review.

For Christmas this year I asked for the DVDs of my two favourite films of the past 18 months or so: Prometheus and the US version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I got Prometheus, we all watched it (again), we all loved it. However, I didn’t get the latter. Hm. This little disappointment has been lost in my cheese and chutney coma as we sit in a beery fug on Boxing Day watching the original Swedish film and I have decided that as a special Christmas treat for y’all I shall compare the two versions of ‘The Feel-Bad Movie of Christmas’ (smashing tagline).

Now I for one am loving TV’s obsession with Scandinavia at the moment. Shows like Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge have topped ratings and viewings both here in Albion and also Stateside resulting in US re-makes, like with the Milennium trilogy. Cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen are the place to be seen if you’re young, creative and dedicated to tofu. If you want to immerse yourself in sleeve tattoos and beards in beanies sipping locally-brewed ale, head on down to Vesterbro district in Copenhagen my friends. So while a large part of the English-speaking world, and certainly myself, is in love with all things Scandi-chic I must admit that, for me, the American re-make of TGWTDT surpasses the original. Here’s why:

In Noomi Rapace, we have this small, obscure punk-Goth who can quite clearly kick some serious ass and this effect rolls right off her razor-sharp cheekbones. We see very little vulnerability to Rapace’s Salander. Petite and compact though she is, when we see her body it is solid and honed muscle. (Her dragon tattoo beats out Rooney Mara’s though, I must admit). In terms of Mikael Blomkvist, the pockmarked and seemingly more blundering Michael Nyqvist doesn’t strike the same chord as Daniel Craig’s. This is more in accordance with the book and as I personally don’t have the hots for Daniel Craig I thought his injection of Hollywood heartthrob into the film was perhaps a bit unnecessary. This aside, the whole film in general doesn’t quite have the artistic flair found in the US version. In true straight-forward Scandinavian style the film plods from scene to scene, hardly taking the time for lingering head-shots or shifty gazes, or take in the slick background of Stockholm in the first 20 or so minutes of the film. In contrast, the US update with the godsend that is David Fincher as director has the camera moving through the scenes like a silent shark, picking up every eyebrow twitch and grimacing snarl. Even the sun-drenched, summery memory scenes of Harriet’s disappearance have a fluid menace to them. This is why Fincher was the perfect director for this film. With Se7en, Fight Club and most recently The Social Network under his belt, Fincher has made his mark as an auteur in film by developing that great knack of eeking out the nastiness that lurks beneath the surface in everyone. For me, having Fincher at the helm of this film is what tipped it as the better of the two versions.

As previously mentioned, Noomi Rapace is badass and we see her potential for ass-kicking right from the off in the 2009 film. But with Rooney Mara we see this elfin, mercurial cyber-Punk who looks too frail to ever even pinch anyone, let alone punch them and overpower them while going up an escalator. This is why when she gets her revenge on the revolting Nils Bjurman it manages to show with even more fervour just how mentally unsettled Salander really is, again Fincher’s brilliant technique of shifting the murky waters of his characters’ personalities The film in general seems to really show the dreadful bleakness of the storyline, in every aspect. The title sequence drowning in oily technological violence with the electrifying, crackling cover of Immigrant’s Song kicks things off with more panache. The supporting cast are well-chosen and eclectic (look out for theatre darling Steven Berkoff as Henrik Vanger’s lawyer Frode). Mara and Craig have far better chemistry. The cinematography and greyed light, as well as the small change of the whole film taking place in the bleak midwinter rather than changing seasons adds to the harsh cruelty of the film and means that we see how Hollywood’s big-budget artistic touch has enhanced rather than flattened this re-make. I often disagree with American re-makes, not least with the recent remake of the bleakly beautiful Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. It seems as though films with a more delicate, art-house touch are best left to be appreciated without a Hollywood helping hand. But this remake was something else, and for me Rooney Mara stole the show, well deserving her Oscar nomination.

So there it is. My special festive review of two not very festive films. I leave you with some fan art I found on the internet to seal my obsession with Rooney Mara. You stay classy, Internet users. ♥

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

“I’m throwing rocks tonight.” A discussion on the use of music in film


The scene opens on a set of white bowling pins in a typical American bowling alley. A beer is placed in a holder.  A ball rolls back into the holding bay.  It is picked up and bowled.  Strike.  Ash is tapped from a cigarette.  A ball is picked up. Sequence of various different sized Americans bowling.  Man sprays shoes.  Donny bowls a strike.

“I’m throwing rocks tonight .”

And so The Big Lebowski begins.  Alone, this scene would be uninteresting. Despite the Coen Brothers fantastic cinematography, most notably in the way the camera follows the ball as it rolls down the lane, alone this scene would frankly be dull. So why is it such a perfect opening for such a perfect film?

Bob Dylan.  I’m not going to sing praises of Bob Dylan, however much I would like to, because in fact, the song used over the Coen’s bowling montage alone, is pretty average.   But in the context of this montage, it makes perfect sense. The Coen brothers indeed have perfectly married film and music at the beginning of this film.  It gives a ironic twist on bowlers who are presented as being unremarkable, typical Americans, with music proclaiming there is something greater going on inside them, indeed the song is titled “The Man in Me”. It sets us up perfectly for the introduction to The Dude. Who is very much your typical American, though at least he’s housebroken. This irony about average people being great, really, is repeated again and again throughout the film. Whether it’s the paedophile Jesus, the Vietnam Veteran Walter, or the Dude himself, there is a constant suggestion that what goes on in their lives is somehow reaching towards something greater. But this all falls apart at the end, when they realise it was all one big fuck up.

The song “The Man in Me” is essentially used as a motif.  Good filmmakers, such as the Coen brothers, understand the power music can hold over a film. In Casablanca the repetition of the song “As Time Goes By” holds such emotional power over the characters that whenever we even get a snippet of the song, we know instantly what the characters are feeling.

Music in films however, can be used awfully.  There must be a certain subtlety to the way the music is used or it comes across as being a cheap way of covering up a montage. For music to be used in a montage, like in the Big Lebowski, to good affect the scene itself must almost be passive.  Take a moment to consider the way The Libertines “Time for Heroes” is used in American Pie: The Wedding. The song is, undeniably, fucking brilliant. And while to a certain extent it is about teens going nuts and smashing shit up, it does not match up with nerdy, uninteresting teens getting drunk and trying to get laid. The combination of the two serves neither the song nor the film well.

But music in this fils is not used as a motif. Instead it attempts to match a moment within the film with music that fits suitably, that’s not to say, that this cannot be done well.

Tarantino and Scorsese are renowned for their ability to do this and unquestionably are masters of their art. Take the scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent arrives at Marcellus’s house and Son of A Preacher Man is Playing, the irony in the song plays perfectly off the characters.  Music should not be used as a cover up for a scene but should serve both the scene and the song, as Tarantino does here and as is done with Hallelujah in Watchmen. Whereas usually the song is taken to be a painfully ironic hymn to unrequited love, in this scene in Watchmen a whole new dimension is brought to the song. Love, both physically and mentally (there’s nudity kids) is presented as an escape from life, it is something sacred and something that cannot last. Hallelujah is a cry out of love in a world void of hope.

I couldn’t find the actual scene. I presume due to its sexual nature.

Music married with film can bring a new dimension to the scene and the song, but it is a delicate art and must be approached carefully. Finally I will leave you with another master of this technique. Here he uses music to create a feel to the film, and the mood of a  city. That man is of course Woody Allen.  Until next time.

The Dedicated Apeman x