Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
It’s all “the kids” this and “the kids” that, amiright? I mean, this record has only been on store shelves since this morning, and in the last couple weeks since it, uh, found its way to the internet, certain circles have already reduced Arcade Fire’s third album to a drinking game. By the way, I counted, and if you plan on taking a shot every time Win Butler uses the term “the kids” on this album, you’re going to down roughly fifteen in the span of just over an hour, turning The Suburbs into an unlikely soundtrack for an evening spent with your head in the toilet. Think Canada’s most sincere and serious rock band might have growing up on the brain?
Of course, we who have not forgotten the finer points of their first two records know that subtlety has never been Butler’s fastball and that the childhood > adolescence > adulthood continuum has always been at the core of the band’s artistic vision. I will not be the first or last writer to point out the way Funeral’s treatment of age and loss sprung from a distinctly innocent and wounded vantage (what we might call ‘child-like’) and how Neon Bible stumbled under the weight of black-and-white (mostly black) proselytizing on the Big Problems of the world, something angsty teenagers are known to engage in from time to time. While it certainly marks a reclamation of honor and a return to impressive musical form for Butler & Co., The Suburbs is also the most logical and elegant next step for a band whose career is starting to feel more like watching someone slowly grow up.
Here, as always, concept and gesture rank alongside musicality. The influential touchstones make sense for an album about middle American ennui made by children of the 80s: Bruce Springsteen (duh), Neil Young, even Tom Petty (which turns out not to be a bad thing). In fact, they make so much sense and are themselves such easy things to reference when one is trying to sound timeless and red-blooded that we may be tempted to roll our eyes and dock the record a few points in our snotty little rubric. But to criticize the band now for cleaving to the sounds that have served them in the past is to miss the point of Arcade Fire entirely. This is the kind of thing they are built for and it’s why you can find a modicum of joy (yes, joy!) in hearing them pound out this bulky brooder.
Sixteen tracks spread over sixty four minutes is a lot of cloudy malaise to sit through, but The Suburbs has its definite highlights. I’ve been digging the distorted guitar / bass combo that carries “Ready to Start” since the song appeared online months ago, and the art school deconstruction “Rococo” puts echoing lead guitar and background harpsichord where the Neon Bible version of the band might have dropped an obtrusive church organ. “City with No Children” does the Tom Petty thing I mentioned earlier, but also serves as a great example of the new balance the band has struck between politics and personality. “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,” proclaims Butler, perhaps questioning by extension his own role as a supposedly righteous polemic. “Half Light I” is a slow burn strikingly similar to Devotchka’s “How it Ends,” while its sequel track imbues a Springsteenian anthem with percussive electro touches.
There are also hints that living in ranch homes in neat little rows is not the only thing at stake here. “The music divides us into tribes / you choose your side, I’ll choose my side,” goes one line from “Suburban War,” revisiting the way “Rococo” pulls the rug out from underneath ‘savvy’ downtown youth. Even “Month of May,” despite its timid punk downstrokes, tries to convince all the hipsters to stop being so guarded and ironic all the time (“So much pain for someone so young / I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light / but how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?”) “We Used to Wait” takes the memory of slow, hand-written correspondence and distills it into a jab at the 21st century’s break-neck pace of information, but it goes beyond extolling the virtue of patience. “Now our lives are changing fast / hope that something pure can last,” huffs Butler. He’s drawing a parallel between speed and distortion (i.e. the faster we want something, the more garbled it will be when we get it), and the alternative isn’t always appealing: “We used to waste hours just walking around.”
The Suburbs is bookended by two of its most easy-going songs. The opening title track shuffles along on mildly poignant piano chords and a bass line cribbed from Pet Sounds while introducing some of the lines / themes Butler repeats throughout the album. His characters drive around aimlessly (“grab your mother’s keys / we’re leaving”), waste time in parking lots, and contemplate chaotic suburban wars not far removed from the apocalyptic scenarios on Funeral (“your part of town against mine…but by the time the first bombs fell / we were already bored”). The closing version of “The Suburbs” strips a fragment of the song to its orchestral arrangement and finds Butler confessing that he wouldn’t trade his wasted youth even if he could, but the song is an afterthought in its brevity. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is The Suburbs’ real finale and is understandably garnering the most critical attention and praise. It’s an Arcade Fire take on disco pop—specifically Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”—but the key to it is contextual difference. After an hour—or almost three albums, depending on your view—of Butler’s nervous rock ‘n roll, the track’s synthy bounce and the clarity of Régine Chassagne’s humanizing voice render the still-oppressive sentiments (“quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”) bright and new, closing the record on a ray of both conceptual and musical hope.
The age of rock has seen more than its fair share of stoic bands out to make the world a better place, so I fully understand why some people have had a hard time getting excited about this record. Plus, this brand of middle class, Revolutionary Road dissatisfaction is as old as suburbia itself. To me, the success of The Suburbs is not in its message (I grew up in the suburbs and you probably did too; we already know it can suck), but in its delivery. The tempering of big issues with relatability and self-implication does a lot to correct the pompous trajectory the band could have fallen into. It doesn’t yank the heartstrings the way Funeral did, but it’s rife with small flashes of pathos that find their way through the fog. Like Butler’s characters, facing down the prospect of long and fruitless adulthoods, the album does its best to find the beauty in its surroundings and to figure out where the hell to go from here. For the moment, though, Arcade Fire sound wonderfully at home.