Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs”

Few artists have released albums in 2010 with quite the burden of hype borne by Arcade Fire at the time of the release of their third LP, The Suburbs.  And even fewer have risen to those high expectations so magnificently.  The evidence is there: in their #1 debut on the Billboard album charts, their triumphant sets at summer festivals like Osheaga and Lollapalooza, and their concert/Terry Gilliam-directed live webcast at Madison Square Garden.  They are the rare band that has risen to stardom while still making records that are thematically challenging and musically adventurous.

Stylistically, The Suburbs sees Arcade Fire at both their most stripped down (of choruses and orchestras) and their most diverse.  It’s a good fifteen minutes longer than their other two full-lengths, leaving more room for a range of tempos and arrangements, but it feels as unified as anything they’ve put out so far.  It certainly sheds some of the grandiose heaviness of Neon Bible for the straightforward rock of “Modern Man” and “City With No Children”, pastoral numbers like “Wasted Hours” and “Rococo”, and dance-influenced songs like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “We Used To Wait”. It was especially encouraging to see these album highlights like fit right in alongside classics in their live performance.

Lyrically, The Suburbs may be the most melancholy set of songs that Win Butler has penned yet.  Debut LP Funeral dealt quite obviously with death, but so winningly paired that with youthful buoyancy, innocence, and hope.  Their previous album Neon Bible seems a more obvious choice for the most-depressing-album award, but for all its raging against wars, corrupt governments and churches, and dying cities, these concerns felt more abstract, political, and heady than the visceral sadness and longing that Suburbs conjures.  On these songs, it sounds like the narrator of Neon Bible has moved out of his fiery, ideological young adulthood into a world of much more complex emotions.  He wants to return to his suburban childhood but he constantly reflects on how he only wasted those years; he wants to be with the one he loves, but as he says on “Ready to Start, ” he would “rather be alone than pretend that I’m alright.”  He wants to show a child of his own the beauty of this world but he’s afraid it’ll be scarred by its ugliness.  And he wants to escape life’s day-to-day monotony, but the realm of the unexpected is lyrically associated with darkness and confusion.

The Suburbs, however, is the furthest thing from a depressing slog.  Its world-weariness is always masterfully coupled with touches of hope and grace, and any melodic discordance gets nearly trampled by their trademark musical exuberance in the climaxes that each song builds to. This mixing—of optimism and dread, of sepia-tinted memories and uncertainty about the future—is what makes The Suburbs so moving.  The last track, an 87-second refrain of the titular opener, ends the whole affair on a note of perfect ambiguity: Butler sings, “If I could have it back / all the time we wasted / … / you know I would love to waste it again.” It’s not a relentless focus on death and atrocity that lends these songs their sadness, but rather their very real portrayal of human ennui—something we all experience, which is brought about by nothing more remarkable than the passage of time and the changes in our lives.

In this way, The Suburbs is about much more than just the pitfalls of suburbia—a subject we have all been instructed in countless times, in every medium imaginable.  It’s about the very real hopes and fears and doubts that every human feels as we try to make our way through the world.  To sum all that up with the pathos that they do without sounding preachy or heavy-handed is quite a feat, and that’s why while it may not be their best album—Funeral is arguably one of the greatest debuts of all time—The Suburbs is certainly Arcade Fire’s most expansive statement thus far (and they are all about albums-as-statements).  And it helps that they are so incredibly talented at making a whole bunch of joyous, uplifting, thrilling noise to accompany these statements.

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~ by toren on September 9, 2010.

One Response to “Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs””

  1. […] been told by countless cultural works over the past 50 years. I go into greater depth on this in my review of this album, but I think it’s a much more nuanced depiction of the suburbs than that. […]

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