By Chris Anderson
The Suburbs: Hey Muse!
I’ve said it before, just what it is that I love the most about music – no matter how much I think I know, no matter how much I have heard, no matter how many records I own or how many articles I’ve read, what I know barely scratches the surface of what is out there. And quite often artists who I damn well should be aware of still manage to slip by my radar, simply because there is so much music to be heard and I simply had yet to come across them. Such is the case with The Suburbs. I recently came across their latest release, Hey Muse!, totally by chance, and gave it a listen. I figured that they were a new band, some quirky indie pop outfit that had really studied up on the 80s, and happened to pull it off better than just about anyone. I was immediately blown away by just how convincing they were, impressed to see a modern band that had gotten it so right. I had no idea.
Further research hipped me to the fact that no, in fact they are not a new band, not by any stretch, but rather a legendary new-wave band from Minneapolis that formed in the late 1970’s, one that was known for bridging the gap between the funk of Prince and the punk of Hüsker Dü. Somehow the legend totally dodged my consciousness over the years but it turns out that they put out four excellent albums in the 80’s and, after reuniting more recently, this is their second of this decade. My initial pleasure in thinking they were a contemporary band that got it right quickly gave way to a whole new sense of giddiness and the revelation that, simply put, this is the greatest album of the 2010’s to come out from an 80’s band.
Exploring their early catalogue, you can hear traces of other art-punk-new-wave bands such as Gang Of Four, Wire, and XTC, with the occasional pop masterpiece appearing every now and then, while their 2013 “comeback” album, Si Sauvage is the product of a more mature Suburbs. Musically, Hey Muse! sits somewhere in the middle. It’s not as left-field as much of their 80’s work, but it has every bit of the urgency that those early records have. At the same time, it doesn’t sound as grown-up as Si Sauvage, but this is still the product of a band that knows precisely what it’s doing. Every note, every word, every nuance sounds deliberate. That doesn’t mean that this record sounds labored. It’s far too inspired for that. This is the product of a seasoned band.
Kicking off with the title track, there is a groove that is almost reminiscent of Disintegration-era Cure mixed with the early baggy beats of The Charlatans, singer Chan Poling pleading with his muse to “teach me a song and make it beautiful”, as he searches for hope within the nonsense of the modern world. Obviously his muse listened because that song kicks off ten of the most perfect songs to ever exist on the same piece of wax. “Lost You On The Dance Floor” is a very modern, groove-happy dance pop song that is my personal pick for Single Of The Summer. This is the kind of song that you do not expect to come from a veteran band and even though I’ve listened to it well over a hundred times now, that is a fact that never escapes me.
“Je Suis Strange” makes good use of the band’s horn section and, at times, reminds me of a more upbeat Morphine, Poling’s voice at times recalling the late great Mark Sandman. Elsewhere, his voice calls to mind David Bowie and that is quite apparent on “Lovers”, which almost sounds like a lost Bowie song. A little bit of a Psychedelic Furs vibe pops up in “Can’t Take You Back”, except with the majesty of horns and a ton of energy.
It is by this point that you kind of realize that this album is like a single-shot greatest hits set. I really do wonder just how many songs they wrote for this album, how many songs got the shaft in order to wind up with this track list. There is no way that they just wrote ten songs and they happened to be this good. No band is that awesome. No matter their route, however, the result is a win.
“Unified Force” has a bit of an early Duran Duran feel, especially in the instrumental breaks, but this is honestly better than much of that band’s work (no slight on DD, this song is just that good). “Our Love” brings back the Morphine vibe, a low-rock number with some great subtle organ and horn fills and a groove that just makes you want to move. “Cupid” is a loping, rolling number about falling for someone that’ll make you bob your head. The energy of this record only dips for “Butterfly”, which is a beautiful, haunting number that really should be a single. I could see that song being performed on SNL, something that really should happen. Closing out the album is the propulsive “When We Were Young”, a song that harkens back to their early sound, especially in the squealing guitar swells. This is a song that just as easily could have opened the album but it also a perfect exclamation point.
The thing about this album, aside from the quality of the songs, is just how accessible the entire package is. It has firm roots in the 80’s which makes it appealing to people of my generation. But it’s also modern enough that it totally makes sense for it to exist today, and it could easily appeal to younger generations. Most importantly, of course, is that it appeals to ME. It will take a very special album to keep this from topping my year-end best-of list. You absolutely must hear this.