By Rich Larson
This past week, the world celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was a book written for middle-schoolers and tweens that launched a pop culture phenomenon and a billion-dollar empire. Over the course of the next 10 years, author J.K. Rowling published a series of books starring her wizard hero and his brave cohorts that eventually turned from children’s literature to heart-rending, grown up thrillers addressing themes of friendship and loyalty, personal responsibility, life and death, and love and loss. Rowling is the rare artist who has been able to shepherd and evolve her work as her audience itself grows and evolves.
And you’re wondering, “What does this have to do with Hey Muse!, the new album from the Twin Cities’ seminal New Wave band, The Suburbs?”
Well, just this: sometimes, if we’re lucky, the art that we love grows up with us.
It’s nearly forty years since The Suburbs eponymous EP was the first title released by Twin/Tone Records. In that time, the band has seen a lifetime’s worth of success, disappointment, splits, reunions, change, death and affirmation, just like every other 19-year-old Twin Cities club goer who bought that first album in 1978. Now with their ninth collection of new material, Hey Muse!, led by mainstay creative force Chan Poling and original ‘Burbs drummer Hugo Klaers, the band has given us music fit for everyone from kids on the dance floor to rockers of a certain age.
Hey Muse!, is a Suburbs album first and foremost and, importantly, it doesn’t try to be anything other than that. Poling’s creepy/sensual/campy/magnificent baritone voice is a cornerstone of the sound, as it has been since way back in the Jay’s Longhorn Bar days. Another key component is the concentrated, syncopated rhythms provided first by Klaers’ perfect-yet-playful timekeeping, and followed closely by strong bass lines and bouncing horns. Those pillars are on frequent display on this album. The deep grooves of songs like “Unified Force,” “Our Love,” “I Lost You on the Dance Floor,” and the irresistible title track make it impossible to not move at least one part of your body and, quite often, the whole thing. At the same time songs like “Je Suis Strange,” “Butterfly,” and the hard driving, dimly lit (if not dark) album closer “When We Were Young,” reveal a new wisdom and even a touch of sentimental reflection in Poling’s lyrics that were never present in those earlier years.
The lineup has changed quite a bit over time, Poling and Klaers are the only remaining original members of the band, but this unit is as strong as it ever has been. Bassist Steve Price is a worthy successor to the retired Michael Halliday. Price’s instrument drives “Our Love” with a funky, prowling foundation that allows Poling to slink and skulk through the song like a ridiculously charming stalker. The horn section, led by veteran Suburb sax-man Max Ray, is both tight and versatile, offering a jazzy break on “Our Love,” and an occasional taste of British New Wave on songs like “Can’t Take You Back.”
The biggest change from the original band’s lineup is in the guitars. Beej Chaney and Bruce Allen were hugely important architects of the Suburbs original sound, and there can be no replacing the personality those two brilliant musicians brought to the band. Steve Brantseg and Jeremy Ylvisaker, however, are highly impressive players in their own right and both are able to capture a shade of the Suburbs history, from Brantseg’s dutiful channeling of Allen’s tone and style, to Ylvisaker’s Chaney-like creativity. And while loyal to the blueprint, neither player sacrifices his own individuality for the sake of consistency. To be sure, they acknowledge the debt owed to their predecessors. The album opens with a Brantseg guitar line that immediately summons Allen’s ghost. But they aren’t afraid to add their own perspectives, either. On “When We Were Young” Ylvisaker uses Brantseg as a launching pad, taking the music to a place completely unforeseen in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In the end, this is Poling’s band, just as it always has been. Poling writes the music. The lineup is made up from his handpicked selections. The music moves in whichever direction he points. Nobody understands the sound of The Suburbs as well as he does. Even so, Poling himself has expressed concerns that Hey Muse! might be rooted a bit too much in the 1980s. While there may be an element of truth to that notion – the keyboard lines on the songs “Hey Muse!” and “Unified Force,” would fit comfortably on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack – this album is too good to simply be dismissed as a retro look back to the glory days. As a songwriter Poling’s name belongs in the rarified air of his Minneapolis contemporaries Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, and, yes, even the Great Fallen Purple Hero, Prince Rogers Nelson. If the album recalls a little bit of 1982 at times and 1986 at others, it’s because it sounds like a Suburbs album, and a glorious one at that. The lyrics may sometimes offer a little more depth and wisdom than they did in 1980. The music has certainly evolved with time – it’s a long way from the swagger of “Cig Machine” to the sentiment of “Butterfly” – but the grooves are all still there. The melodies are still as creative and still catchy as hell. The Suburbs are now making music for multiple generations, but they still sound like The Suburbs.
They just grew up with us.
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin