There are so few bands these days that truly strive for greatness.
That’s not the same as saying that few bands are truly great, although that is also true. I’m talking about bands that aren’t afraid to genuinely reach for the stars, and be seen doing it. Most music follows previously-established formulas, standing on the shoulders of those who came before. There’s nothing wrong with that – many of my favorite bands do nothing else – but adding a personal touch to Ray Davies-esque pop, for instance, can hardly be called going for the brass ring.
Musicians who don’t follow those formulas, or who find interesting ways to turn them on their ears, usually break down into a couple of groups. There are those who humbly present their work, with an aw-shucks-here-are-my-songs-I-hope-you-like-them demeanor, and there are those who maintain a full and ironic detachment from their own music, lest they be considered lame by the hecklers in the peanut gallery. There’s a sense, intentionally given, that these musicians don’t take what they do all that seriously.
It’s not just that wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t cool. It can be – think Nick Drake, or Elliott Smith. But those guys have a fragility about them that belies their craft. It’s easy to imagine those whispered melodies just tumbling out of Smith, his guitar a conduit to his soul. He wasn’t trying to be as good as he was. No, what I’m talking about is that particular quality exemplified by U2, especially 1980s U2. Here was a band who said, out loud, they were aiming to be the best band in the world. And they worked to the fullest of their ability to do just that.
There are whole generations of people now who don’t understand why U2 was so important. Nothing they’ve done since Achtung Baby in 1991 has had that same verve, that confident and unrestrained ambition, that feeling that the band pushed themselves to the limit. From Boy to Achtung Baby, U2 clearly tried to make The Best Album Ever each time out. Whether they succeeded is another matter, and one of opinion. The point is, they tried.
Same thing with Radiohead, until they lost the plot. On The Bends and especially OK Computer, you could hear them trying with everything they had to be the greatest band on the planet. When they believed it, nothing could stop them. When they shrunk back from it, turning out synth-drone experiments and swapping ambition for pretentiousness, they lost that edge. Even the most ardent Radiohead fan would have trouble arguing that the band is really trying anymore.
There are still some aiming for greatness, though, instead of just acting like they are. (That’s a whole different column, but see Jon Bon Jovi as an example.) One of the finest cases in point is Arcade Fire. Seven members, a sound that could move mountains, and a dramatic sweep that fills every room it’s played into, and carries you along with it. Each time out, this Montreal outfit has seemed on a mission to make the biggest, boldest and best record their little hearts can muster.
Their third, The Suburbs, is their biggest, boldest and best. A 16-song, 64-minute cycle, The Suburbs has not one moment of levity or irony, not one second on which the band isn’t giving their all with an earnest, consuming fire. The Suburbs is an extended meditation on that moment you realize there is life beyond the houses and shopping malls you’ve always known, that moment you see what has been imprisoning you, and how you can leave it. Some have called it hopeless, but to me, that smacks of not taking in the complete album. And it is definitely meant to be swallowed whole.
The music is certainly darker and more sweeping than anything this band has done. It builds on the strengths of 2007’s Neon Bible, sometimes swaying in the wind, sometimes howling with phenomenal force. None of it feels forced or overstuffed – it’s just monolithic enough. The opening title track is deceptively easygoing, with its marching beat and plunking piano, but “Ready to Start” (appropriately enough) kicks things into gear. A sonic explosion rushing like a hurricane in to knock down those suburban houses in the liner note photos, “Ready to Start” sets the themes in motion: “If the businessmen drink my blood like the kids in art school said they would, I guess I’ll just begin again…”
Above all this turmoil is Win Butler, who has a blocky yet remarkably emotional voice. Butler isn’t a flashy frontman – he doesn’t have the charisma or the quirkiness to rise above the songs, but he doesn’t need to. He’s part of the din, not the focus of it, and as the band swirls around him – check out the steadily-building “Rococo,” which adds layers and layers to its repetitive foundation – he becomes as intense as he needs to. (Special mention needs to be made of Owen Pallett, whose arrangements this time are amazing.)
The songs on The Suburbs are more like movements of a symphony, each approaching the theme from a different angle. There’s nothing here as immediate as “No Cars Go” or “Rebellion (Lies),” but these songs work together like no others the band has written. The suburban war is mentioned early, in the title track, so when it arrives on track nine (“Suburban War,” natch), it feels like a well-foreshadowed plot point. That song is a little masterpiece, plaintive guitars spinning out a dark melody while Butler laments those he has lost: “Now the cities we live in could be distant stars, and I search for you in every passing car…”
One more side note about “Suburban War,” since it contains one of the most accurate observations of suburban teenage life on the record: “Now the music divides us into tribes, you choose your side, I’ll choose my side.” That’s exactly how it is. Your musical taste is like a brand, tying you to an identity and a group of friends. A metal kid would rather die than admit he sometimes listens to Elton John.
“Month of May,” another one of those sonic explosions, draws a fine analogy between disaffected youth and the dead – both are immoble and emotionless, with their arms folded tight. Yet hope is here: “Start again in the month of May, come on and blow the wires away…” “Wasted Hours” may be the album’s darkest, despite its sprightly acoustic rhythm, as Butler wishes he were “anywhere but here,” and comes to a revelation about adulthood: “We’re still kids in buses, longing to be free…” The two-part “The Sprawl” finds Butler wondering if there is anything else besides human ruin.
But he’s older now, and even though he can’t believe it, he’s moving past the feeling. The Suburbs is something of a sequel to the band’s debut, Funeral, but it’s tougher, and it earns its hope more completely. The end of the album finds Butler looking back on his suburban imprisonment with equal parts nostalgia and dread. In some ways, I think we all feel that way about our childhoods. In the minute-long coda “The Suburbs (Continued),” Butler muses, “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again, if I could have it back, you know I would love to waste it again.”
It’s not enough for Butler and company to make an album about suburban childhood, however. They set about making The Best Album About Suburban Childhood Ever, and you can hear that drive in every minute of it. The Suburbs is an extremely quick 64 minutes, but it will fill you up and drain you dry. It does all this without winking at you, or shrinking from its ambition. It is, quite simply, a great record, and it never pretends to be anything else.
* * * * *
Jimmy Gnecco is another who consistently aims for the rafters. He’s been gifted with a supernatural voice – there aren’t many singers in Jeff Buckley’s league, but Gnecco is one of them – and an unfaltering sense of the dramatic. His one-man-band project, Ours, draped that extraordinary voice in sheets of blinding guitar and production so thick you could swim in it. Gnecco can sing like an angel, but when he lets loose and really screams it out, it’s like the walls of the world coming down.
Gnecco’s biggest problem has always been his image. His album covers are gothic nightmares, and if you picked up Precious expecting Marilyn Manson-style doom-laden noise, I wouldn’t blame you. Likewise, if you approach his solo debut The Heart cold, you’re greeted with the image of a naked Gnecco covered in tattoos, looking like Vincent Gallo or someone who might frequent the Suicide Girls website. Think HIM and you have the right idea.
But the music inside could not be more different. Nearly all of The Heart is acoustic, slow and pretty. It still retains Gnecco’s flair for the dramatic, but everything is subdued, simpler and quieter. The Heart is an hour long, and it never picks up. The entire album is like something Gnecco recorded at home on a series of rainy days. Some of it is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but much of it meanders around, following emotional logic – the record feels to me like a thorough bleeding, something Gnecco simply had to get out of his system.
One thing I will say for it, The Heart is a showcase for Gnecco’s remarkable voice. The title track, for instance, is a couple of strummed chords over handclaps for six minutes, but the looping melody shows off Gnecco’s range. It finds him leaping from hushed tones to full-on, full-force screaming, and I’ve never heard that voice so unadorned, so naked. This isn’t a song I think I can listen to very often, because it’s so draining.
I actually find I like this record better when Gnecco calms things down, and writes a compelling melody. “Bring You Home” is a favorite, particularly when the electric guitar kicks in and Gnecco leaps for his falsetto. “These Are My Hands” is nice as well, with its “woah-oh” refrain and memorable chorus. But much of this album is simply self-indulgent, and I think it could have been trimmed by four or five songs. Then again, the goal of an album like this is not to be concise and sharp, but to be messy and rambling, like the emotions of the heartbroken.
It’s easy to see why this isn’t an Ours record. This one is pure Gnecco, and it’s like trundling through his mind, ducking down corridors and byways that don’t necessarily lead anywhere. But the journey is at least pretty interesting. If this unkempt collection was just something bursting to come out, then I hope it’s out, and Gnecco gets back to making focused, dramatic art-rock next time. The Heart is not the first Gnecco album I’ll reach for, but it does show some very different sides to a singular and unjustly obscure artist, and for that, I’m glad I heard it.
* * * * *
It’s been a busy and exhausting seven days since we last spoke, so unlike either of the artists on tap this week, I’m going to keep it short. Next week, I get all indie on your ass. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.