Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
By wes jakacki
August 3, 2010
Like a postmodern Springsteen, Winn Butler, lead man of Montreal collective Arcade Fire, is a musical voice for his generation in America, capturing the confusion and cynicism felt by many today, without losing the hope and beauty that resides in the world. On their celebrated debut, Funeral, Butler covered grief and death through imagery of his childhood neighborhood. From there, the band followed up with the hugely ambitious Neon Bible (which was even recorded in a church), which covered issues of faith, doubt, war and religion in America. Now, Butler and the gang heads back to the neighborhood for a concept album based on Winn and his bandmate and brother Will’s upbringing in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, dealing with regrets, identity, and the beauty and ugliness that comes with their suburban past. The Suburbs plays out like an episode of Mad Men; it’s an iconic nod to the past and a search for meaning that is clouded with the true darkness of some of the moral issues of the time (war, greed), but without all the sex, smokes and booze of the TV show. But The Suburbs is no small-town affair as it is an expansive 16 song epic that truly doesn’t miss a beat as it wonderfully soars and swells through its suburban story, making for one of the best albums of 2010.
The Suburbs appropriately starts and ends with “The Suburbs,” the title track that pulls you right into a tour of Butler’s childhood, with the opener highlighted by a great old-timey piano line and an irresistible showy falsetto chorus and the closer being a more sparing and jazzy take. The album ratchets up with “Ready to Start,” a tension-filled fuzzy rocker highlighted by its misty piano. The kick-drum restart of “Modern Man” is a look at the existential crisis of the “modern” man’s life and its lack of meaning and direction. “Rococo,” which gets its name from an 18th century Baroque painting style, takes a shot at the cultural elitism that is so prominent today in adolescents as it menacingly builds to its choral climax.
While this is very much Butler’s tale, his wife, Régine Chassagne, absolutely shines in her songs, most notably on “Empty Room,” which kick-starts the middle and finest stretch of The Suburbs. The most beautiful moment on The Suburbs, “Empty Room” stars Chassagne’s voice, which somehow remains isolated and intimate, rising above all the frenzied violin and shoegaze noise. “City With No Children” points to our world ruined by greed and hypocrisy, though Butler doesn’t just point the finger at the wealthy but realizes we are all broken. “You never trust a millionaire/ Quoting the sermon on the mount/ I used to think I was not like them/ But I'm beginning to have my doubts/ My doubts about it.” “Half Light I,” with its majestic strings and Butler and Chassagne’s voices coupling wonderfully, embodies the beauty of a surreal night on a hill looking on toward the city lights.
“Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Suburban War” follow, which sound reminiscent of fellow big-hearted anthem rockers U2 and Bruce Springsteen respectively, with the former capturing issues of God, the economy, life and death over a pulsating U2-ish sonic terrain and the latter is about a pair of friends feeling like they have to flee the suburbs (a sort of “Born To Run” story), only to find themselves only be divided, lost and forgotten in the city.
“Month of May” is a classic churning rock ‘n’ roll affair mixed with Arcade Fire’s signature dark atmospheric sound, not too dissimilar from TV On The Radio’s “Wolf Like Me”. The folksy country stroll of “Wasted Hours” is one of the most simple and straightforward songs on the album, but makes for the sort of refreshingly light change of pace that was seriously lacking from the band’s grandiose second album, Neon Bible.
The album’s second multi-song saga, “The Sprawl I (Flatland)” and “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” caps the album off as each are in many ways virtual opposites, like two different perspectives or sort of alternate endings to the album. The barren “The Sprawl I,” is Butler’s return to his hometown, which he notes is “the saddest day of my life” as he discovers he has never really had a home after all. “The Sprawl II” is a lively '80s electro disco that has Chassagne singing about the inability to escape the artificial life of the suburban sprawl, but the song’s sound offers a sort of child-like hope of endless possibilities.
The songs on The Suburbs work much better in the context of the album, and the album offers no exceptional single like “Wake Up” or “Rebellion (Lies)“ but does it does offer a tons of depth, leaving plenty of room for interpretation, which makes it an album that will be peeled back and analyzed with much enjoyment by listeners for years to come. In an era of “flavor of the week” indie trends in music, an album like The Suburbs is evermore refreshing for its tremendous scope and substance, and places Arcade Fire in the most elite tier of musicians today.