The Suburbs – Arcade Fire (August 2010)

After the oft-called perfect Funeral and the massively-underrated Neon Bible, Arcade Fire continues on their schedule of an album every three years with The Suburbs.  Looking at the track list of sixteen compared to the aforementioned’s ten and eleven songs, you might think that with The Suburbs Arcade Fire’s intentions are more ambitious than ever before, but oddly enough, Arcade Fire plays it relatively safe on their third outing, maintaining their pomp and bombast but not musically expanding on their style.  More troubling is that despite the familiar exposition, the band is more difficult to relate to, resorting to a sort of bitterness as opposed to the hopefulness of Funeral and fright of Neon Bible.

Perhaps the most notable difference between The Suburbs and its preceding two albums is that many tracks, including the titular opener, lack the intensity that fueled every song up to that point.  The first half of “Modern Man” sounds flat-out relaxing, and “City With No Children” and “Wasted Hours” have similar moods, but “The Suburbs” itself is the major shocker.  It begins as a bitter recollection of childhood in the suburbs (“Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving”) which anticipates a “Suburban War,” the subject of a later song, and then turns into fond hopes of a future daughter, which resemble Win’s state of mind from Neon Bible’s “(Antichrist Television Blues).”

“Modern Man,” which starts with the aforementioned lack of intensity, hints at a subject that reappears several times over the album: Arcade Fire isn’t keen on the ever-changing world.  On the second track, “Ready To Start,” a song which reminds me a lot of a Neon Bible track, the protagonist worries: “If the businessmen, they drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would.”  Apparently the businessmen get to him, and on the next track, “Modern Man,” Win’s character is complaining about the monotony of life (“In line for a number, but you don’t understand”) but reassuring himself that he’s a modern man.

Along with monotony, Arcade Fire isn’t too fond of technology, either.  Along with a rather unsubtle “Put the cell phone down for a while” and “Put the laptop down for a while” in “Deep Blue,” the focus seems to be on writing letters.  “The summer that I broke my arm/I waited for your letter,” recalls Win on “City With No Children.”  Later on the album, on the very best song, “We Used To Wait,” Win takes the idea of waiting for letters and romanticizes it to a darling extent: “Now it seems strange/How we used to wait for letters to arrive/But what’s stranger still/Is how something so small can keep you alive.” Our protagonist feels that instant communication has cheapened the message-sending process and removed some charm from life: “I used to sleep at night/Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain.”  Along with providing a proper defense for the old-fashioned, “We Used To Wait” brings the gigantic sense of importance that made Funeral so special, and this is acknowledged: “Hear my voice screaming/Sing the chorus again!”

Monotony is evil and technology is evil, but while the first is agreeable and the second is understandable, Arcade Fire goes on to bash the youth of today.  “The kids want to be so hard” is thrown out there on the first track, but on “Rococo,” possibly the most talked-about song on the album, Win’s character is absolutely sick of hipsters, which is a curious hatred to act out on, particularly after Win defended his love of his audiences after accusations from Wayne Coyne.  “They seem so wild, but they are so tame/They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same/They want to own you, but they don’t know what game their playing.”  “They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words they don’t understand/They say ‘Rococo.’”  I like how the song “Rococo” sounds, as it can act as a caricature of paranoia about modern teens, but upon further inspection, it seems like a too-little-too-late indictment of a core member of the band’s very fanbase.  On “Rococo,” the band seems, for the first time ever, a little aloof, and it makes the band’s other gripes about suburbia seem just a little more detached.

While her hubby looks at times like a grumpy old man, Régine seems more youthful and exuberant than ever, and eventually even acts as a foil to Win.  On The Suburbs, the violin stylings of Owen Pallett (who was working on his own album, Heartland, at the time) are missed sorely, but Régine’s first vocal number, “Empty Room,” is a positively gorgeous song that features rapid violin flourishes, which helps to contrast Régine’s optimism to Win’s general trapped feeling.  Win complains about feeling lonely for the duration of the album, but on “Empty Room,” Régine cheers “When I’m by myself, I can be myself.”  On half of “Half Light I,” the couple fondly discusses the wonders of being in the half light, and Régine even brings up how it makes her feel free, a feeling that she would chase near the end of the album.

“The Sprawl” is split into two parts with each given to one of the two characters.  Win’s “The Sprawl I (Flatland)” is sad to an almost theatrical extent.  When he sings “Took a drive into the sprawl,” he sounds like he would rather die than continue living in his suburban prison.  Halfway in, he goes into a recollection of the past: “Cops showing their lights/On the reflectors of our bikes.”  Régine’s “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” echoes this with “We shield our eyes from the police lights/We run away, but we don’t know why,” but not after revealing more of a romantic past between the two characters: “We rode our bikes to the nearest park/Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark.”  As Win finally begins to give into living in the sprawl, Régine finally commits herself to finding a way out after she realizes that live in the city would reinvigorate her being.  “These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose/But late at night these feelings swim to the surface/’Cause on the surface, the city lights shine/They’re calling at me ‘come and find your kind.’”  Possessed with the need to escape from a place “where dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,” Régine finally acts on her ideas to leave.

“Suburban War,” the penultimate track on vinyl pressings (curiously shifted to slot nine on CD), finally has the couple exiting the sprawl (“So grab your mother’s keys, we leave tonight”) while Win says a bitter farewell, recounting his issues with the suburbs that trapped him.  On the final track, a short encore of the titular opener, the couple states that if they could have their wasted time back, they’d waste it again before they move past the feeling (again).

The story of The Suburbs is mostly vague and is in no way definite, particularly with the placement “Suburban War” being ambiguous, which echoes the confusion of the theme that Arcade Fire clearly wants us to focus on: The setting.  The suburbs that the characters existed in changed with the world around it (much to the chagrin of Win’s character), and the labyrinth of the roads (“First they built the roads and then they built the town” is said twice in separate songs) keeps the couple trapped.  The towns themselves were built to change, but while Win finds issue with monotony, the progression of everyday life is not something that he is comfortable with.  In a way, Win’s character’s constant references to the town in the second person make it a third, sinister character.  “While we’re sleeping, all these streets/They rearrange,” shows that the suburbs withheld the couple during their horrible time there.

Lyrically, The Suburbs is a gem.  It’s the little moments (“Move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass,” “They heard me singing, and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”) that really elevate it, but as a whole, the album feels frustratingly safe.  Despite actually telling a captivating story over sixteen tracks, Arcade Fire seems to be coasting off previous successes.  The music doesn’t have the spontaneity of Funeral or the robust melodies of Neon Bible, and it has no similar distinction to its overall sound.  Despite each of the sixteen songs being enjoyable thanks to intriguing lyrics and Arcade Fire’s general knack for putting together a song, the guitar-based songcraft makes the band feel frighteningly typical at times.

According to “Month Of May,” Win was going to make a record of how he felt during the years of 2009 and 2010.  I’d say that he felt resentful, depressed, and especially unconfident.  While the album is occasionally thematically dodgy and very safe musically, Arcade Fire still reached beyond the heights that most bands coming off of two successes would.  For once, it makes sense to say that it’s only Arcade Fire.  Fortunately, Arcade Fire is marvelous.


Note: My version of the album has “Suburban War” at track fifteen, but most copies will have it at track nine.  I find that my version makes more sense.  While putting it after “Half Light II (No Celebration)” would have the couple leaving after a repeated “one day they will see us long gone,” “Suburban War” would logically end Win’s and Régine’s suburban plight, meaning that in the CD pressing, “Month Of May” and on would be after the regular story, which doesn’t make sense considering that they’re both still trapped in the sprawl.  Of course, I could be wrong.

I also didn’t want to bring it up mid-review, but this album does have similarities to OK Computer thanks to its fear of technology making life less special.  That, however, does not excuse the definitely-psychotic “let’s give them something to talk about” comparisons by BBC.  Arcade Fire and Radiohead are so very far removed from each other.

Published in: on August 2, 2010 at 10:53 PM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. nice post

  2. really nice work from you

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