A truly prodigious band will evolve from album to album. Historically, the album that usually defines a band’s status as elite is their third album. Take a look at these 3rd albums made by rock bands from the 80’s-00’s and consider that those albums indeed did define the career of the musicians.
BORN TO RUN- by Bruce Springsteen
SONGS FOR THE DEAF- by Queens of the Stone Age
OK COMPUTER- by Radiohead
THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES- by Rage Against the Machine
RUBBER FACTORY- by The Black Keys
What is it that makes the third album so imperative?
Take into account the first album is usually full of teenage angst, and pubescent irony, saturated with having been played hundreds of times in shitty bars and local stages where you try to make a name for yourself.
The second album is the artists more focused piece. It’s typically the first time the artists made music for someone other than themselves. The writing process takes into consideration the fans and style of music the band is shaping to be their own.
For most bands, these albums are usually their best music as they poured all their creativity into the early work.
For the legendary bands, these albums were nothing but progress before they really explored who they are as a band, and how that band will specifically communicate ideas to the world through music. No matter how good the first two albums were, a great band builds on them and their unique voice becomes vigorously worked for the greatness they desire.
If you look back at my list of 3rd albums, Rage Against the machine is the only band listed who didn’t go on to make more music. They literally put so much hard work into the third album that they self-destructed, worn out and stressed from the pressure of fashioning a holistic album that hits every note necessary to be labeled excellent.
And here we are, talking about the importance of 3rd albums because Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs” did not live up to the greatness for me. Funeral, AF’s first album, was pitch-perfect. Funeral is washy with tones of nihilism; operatic with themes of community and family; sorrowful with ideas of unachievable redemption. And then they topped their foundation with “Neon Bible,” an album that stunned many of Arcade Fire’s early listeners. That stun is often found when a band changes its style to evolve into something bigger. And bigger they went. This hallowing sense of abuse and neglect, family destruction, and a crumbling worldview weighs on you while Neon Bible’s beauty seems to keep you captivated. Tortured by splendor, the album holds your heart and never let’s go. Neon Bible holds the “Black Mirror” up to you and asks you to stare deeply into it.
Suburbs is different. Suburbs sits you down in a breakfast nook of the middle class home and asks you to reflect on the dreams of childhood, the youthful reflection through the large pane window. I felt Suburbs did not do justice to the band. Arcade Fire was more than a band that experiments with suburban living to write an album. LET ME STOP AND SAY THIS:
Suburbs, as a creative endeavor, is stunning and gorgeous. It’s a story about how pitiful the artificial beauty of middle to upper class living is, and how the American dream is just a façade. It produces a beautiful sound, about a synthetic beauty.
My problem with the album is that it feels as manufactured as the manufactured idea of suburban living. Yet many of my friends really enjoy the elements and the aesthetic of Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs.” I hate taking joy from things my friends relish in, so I kept my feelings about Suburbs suppressed. But as a 3rd album it concerned me. Could this be the defining moment of Arcade Fire’s career, and if so, the evolution of their band would be one that I’d lose interest in. I felt like I was losing a lover, because we were growing apart. It wasn’t a bad break up, just one of those relationships that drifted away, but you continued to live together because somehow you dug up just enough hope. And then REFLEKTOR, Arcade Fire’s 4th album appeared. Glimpses and teases of the record were released months ago, and it left more questions than answers.
Now having played through it multiple times front to back, I have more hope in my relationship with AF, and also more distrust in what “we had.” The operatic beauty that they struck is becoming the latent image of their songwriting. Now new sounds appear to be building a crescendo epic distortion, with pity-laden lyrics and desolate feelings. Arcade Fire has always been “emo” in lyrics, but the robust chords and melodic puzzling paved a way for Win’s lyrics to come out much more poetically. Reflektor’s lyrics sound ironically delivered to itself. I picture a man alone in the dark, saying tongue-in-cheek lyrics to himself, as though he was consoling his loneliness with the idea that “atleast I have myself.”
Which is hauntingly visceral, a man so alone, he consoles himself with the company of himself.
Taking that away from the album is enough that I want to say it’s a great record. But I don’t enjoy listening to it front to back. That was something I admired about Arcade Fire, from beginning to end, a story was told and I wanted to listen. But I caught myself scratching to skip tracks.
With this background painted, and the stage set, I want to hear your opinions. Please comment below on your thoughts, and I am going to do my best to compile them in a follow up next week. Arcade Fire’s material is typically best chewed on, and by next week, my feelings may be drastically revised, but its looking that’s unlikely.