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'The Suburbs' qualify Arcade Fire for stadium status

“Kids” has got to be one of Arcade Fire’s favorite words. From the self-reference (“us kids know”) back in 2003’s No Cars Go to an onslaught of mentions throughout The Suburbs, kids are all over the place. But really, what would suburbs be if not full of kids?
As we gathered from “us kids know” which not only seemed to reference Arcade Fire and their ilk but more the world at large, “kids” isn’t necessarily synonymous with children in AF’s lexicon. In The Suburbs, we hear about modern kids, kids in art school, kids who “wanna be so hard,” kids “standing with their arms folded tight,” “kids in buses longing to be free … ” Yes, kids run the gamut in more than half the tracks on the record – nearly all of the ones Win Butler sings. But kids are not the theme here. The running theme across 16 songs is that vast sea of uniform buildings, houses and lifestyles all over North America. Rarely has one subject been so exclusively scrutinized on any rock album, but rarely does a band possess the talent and focus to do so as the ever-triumphant Arcade Fire.
This is probably why the Montreal ensemble has graduated to playing only stadium venues on their current tour and getting live streams of their shows sponsored by the likes of American Express (if you missed the Aug. 5 stream of their entire Madison Square Garden gig, you should probably just shoot yourself in the head right now. Check out the double-drumming action in Ready to Start). It’s always a little sad when a band you’ve loved for a long time becomes a stadium band. But Arcade Fire simply have too much power, ingenuity and presence to play smaller venues. Artistically speaking, they’d grown out of those a long time ago.
In an NPR interview prior to the Aug. 2 release of The Suburbs, Win and Will Butler said that following the endless touring marathon that came after 2005’s Funeral and 2007’s Neon Bible, the band took time off and did some “living” which inspired what Win described as “healthy writing,” saying it felt good to be at a point when the band could simply make the songs they wanted.
The album kicks off with the title track in which the bouncy piano succeeds in producing the sense of a child skipping down a suburban lane. But of course, in classic Arcade Fire panache, the happy tune is balanced by stark sentiments, how boredom comes even when war breaks out: “when all the houses they built in the seventies finally fall … it meant nothing at all.”
Ready to Start follows with a fast, pounding guitar and haunting lyrics that build to an uplifting conclusion … about transcending conformity and maintaining individuality, not giving in to businessmen who want to drink your blood.
Like the title track, Modern Man (which almost has a New Order guitar twang) talks about feelings: “I feel like I’m losin’ the feeling/ makes me feel like … something don’t feel right” but leaves the nature of those feelings up in the air.
The lovely pounding of Rococo opens with discussion of modern kids (which seems a little ill-placed right after a song called Modern Man) who build things up just to burn them down and “use great big words that they don’t understand.” Apparently, rococo is one of these words … how bizarre. Isn’t that a form of interior decorating?
Regine Chassagne’s voice emerges in the repetitive but energetic Empty Room, which, like a couple of older AF tunes fades into French, leading into almost folksy (save for that electric guitar) City with No Children, which once again, in spite of its cheery instrumental progression, sings of doubts and private prisons.
The record takes on a softer tone for Half Light I (AF love sequels – see the Neighborhood varieties on Funeral) where the strings – such a distinctive compliment to so many AF tracks – take the wheel.
Half Life II (No Celebration) is faster and takes the instrumental ensemble to almost orchestral proportions (these are always the best part of AF’s live show … when they’re all totally beating the sh*t out of their instruments) and seems to touch on the idea of development leading to destruction and cataclysm (“Now that San Francisco’s gone, I guess I’ll just pack it in … all the seas have changed so much since I was a little child/Pray to god I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.”)
Suburban War is truly gritty, traveling down memory lane in learning to drive, growing and cutting hair but then taking sides against friends and becoming unrecognizable. It builds to a climax of hammering drums and Butler’s vocals erupting into shrill cries.
The mood turns almost punk (there’s even an opening count off) in Month of May, which has a distinctively Johnny B. Goode motif. It’s a song about how the cold Montreal winters bloom into what Butler described in the NPR interview as “a violent energy.”
Wasted Hours has a bluesy swing of acoustic guitar in which dramatic pauses allow Butler’s soft and sad vocals to go acapella for a few seconds. Deep Blue begins with a similar guitar sound until piano and other instruments kick in as Butler sings about things ending – stars, centuries – and the chorus romps into a simple “la, la, la, la, la …" (not many bands have powerful enough verses to get away with this).
High piano strains launch We Used to Wait, one of the most instrumentally climatic songs on the record. Lyrically it covers lives changing fast and builds to the conclusion that “we used to wait for it … but now we’re screaming sing the chorus again.” And they sing the chorus again.
Butler’s ballad of Sprawl I (Flatland) (yes, AF also love secondary track titles) borders on melodrama but is rescued by Chassagne’s Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), possibly the most striking tune on the record. Amid an electronic and vocal landscape that is somewhat reminiscent of Fever Ray or The Knife, Chassagne sings about how “dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains” and wonders if “the world’s so small that we can never get away from the sprawl.”
The record’s final track – The Suburbs (continued) – quietly repeats some of the opening track and seems to function primarily as an epilogue, which makes sense on a piece of work that is much closer to a story or an extended poem than an album … subject-wise, anyway.
Though most reviewers have salivated over The Suburbs, some fans have commented that its thematic nature makes it seem “forced.”
But not many rock bands in the world – or any other artist, for that matter – can simply point to a subject and so broadly create from it. Planned it may be, but forced it is not. While so many artists just throw paint on a canvas and come up with a subject or meaning as an afterthought (hey, let’s call it this …), Arcade Fire choose what seed they want to plant and then grow a jungle. Full of intensity and passion, The Suburbs is such a jungle … even if it was rendered from manicured lawns.

Comments

  • Garrett 4 years ago

    I love me some Arcade Fire. The Suburbs is such an amazing album that is beyond its time. Great article.

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