Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Suburbs (2010)


1. The Suburbs 2. Ready To Start 3. Modern Man 4. Rococo 5. Empty Room 6. City With No Children 7. Half Light I 8. Half Light II 9. Suburban War 10. Month Of May 11. Wasted Hours 12. Deep Blue 13. We Used To Wait 14. Sprawl I (Flatlands) 15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) 16. The Suburbs (Continued)


This is what happens when angsty little shits finally stop feeling sorry for themselves all day and realize that there’s a whole world outside their bedroom doors – families, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Apparently it took Win Butler—OK, let’s be fair, his songwriting persona—until he was 30 for this to occur, but hey, better late than never. “All those wasted hours we used to know/Spent the summer staring out the window.” No doubt. And in Quadrophenia-like fashion, the Arcade Fire’s maturation out of complete self-centered teenagedom comes with an existential recognition of all society’s ills, social alienation, and the cosmic pointlessness of it all. Blah, blah, blah, we’ve heard it all before, and Win Butler is no Dostoyevsky, to put it mildly. But on The Suburbs, he’s not trying to be. He hasn’t reached his Bono phase yet (though that may very well be coming, and I fear the day it does) – he’s not proclaiming himself a prophet peddling some kind of hippy-dippy cure for all the socio-political problems in the world. In fact, he doesn’t seemed particularly concerned with or even aware of those problems. Rather, he casts an eye out toward what he knows: his own world, which began with a keen awareness of the boredom and conformity inherent in his suburban upbringing that he apparently saw reflected, seemingly paradoxically, in all the fucking hipsters that began surrounding him when he became an indie rock star.

Indeed, Butler isn’t exactly breaking any new thematic ground on The Suburbs, though I do seem to recall hipster-bashing starting to come in vogue around the time this album came out. Now everybody does it and it’s fucking boring and predictable, especially since it rarely goes beyond making fun of beards and artisanal coffee shops. Hardy har, real original. But back in 2010, songs like “Rococo” and “Month Of May” were capable of actually landing some punches against the bourgeoning hipster culture that had rallied around Arcade Fire after Funeral but which, like any subculture these days, was becoming quickly co-opted by corporate interests. There are numerous references to “the modern kids” who, Win observes, stand around “with their arms folded tight” while “using great big words that they don’t understand.” If these sound like obvious potshots, well, that’s because they are, and six years later they mostly sound more snarky than insightful. But they still work as part of a broader thematic canvas about the state of the modern world and its closed-mindedness, conformity, and a lack of the type of originality, creativity, and passion that leads to great art.

This being the case, Butler and the rest of the band clearly believe themselves to be in possession of such traits, and while that may be conceited, well, they’re not entirely wrong. They’ve always displayed a level of passion that’s uncommon in today’s insular indie rock scene—even their biggest detractors should be able to allow that—but the difference bewteen The Suburbs and their earlier (and, arguably, later) work is that the band managed to channel that passion in more refined ways than bombastic screaming and overwrought pseudo-goth lyrics. Indeed, this album is chock full of catchy hooks that are actually given room to breath amongst careful, varied arrangements that prove Arcade Fire finally learned the lesson that, sometimes, less is more. It’s also full of lyrical passages that are more straightforward yet, at least to me, non-depressed teenager, resonant and relatable than, say, “Something filled up my heart with nothing/Someone told me not to cry.” Yes, Butler does a bit of predictable Luddite-esque grumbling about modern technology (“Deep Blue”) and how everything was better when people used to handwrite letters (“We Used To Wait”) (*makes jerkoff motion*) that prefigures the themes of Reflektor. But how can you make a record about what was happening in 2010 and not address that stuff? Really, more than any specific societal critique Butler makes, what has drawn me in about The Suburbs since the first time I heard it is the overall feeling it captures – somewhere between boredom, hopelessness, and unshakable optimism. There are multiple Born To Run-esque references on the album to “grab[bing] your mother’s keys” and hitting the road… but where does that road lead? Win seems to be saying that no matter how far you drive, these days, you can never escape the suburbs and what it represents. It’s a lifelong struggle to create in the face of that reality.

OK, sure, this all sounds more than a bit pretentious, but who gives a fuck? If the band had, as Regine sings in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” “Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,” they would have never been spurred to achieve the impressive songwriting heights that The Suburbs often reaches. The arrangements are consistently surprising, creative, and intriguing, from the jaunty folk rock title track to the frenzied orchestral rock of “Empty Room” to the pseudo-punk of “Month Of May” to the EDM-inspired “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Really it only took me a few seconds into my first listen of this album back when it came out for me to recognize that the band was doing something truly and agreeably classicist with it – with its music hall piano and acoustic strumming, the title track indeed sounds like something straight off of Hunky Dory, in terms of both timbre and melody (who knew Win had that falsetto in him?). Guess all that hanging around with Bowie finally rubbed off on them. I was also then and remain pleased that there’s some actual almost-garage rock on here in the form of the angular, unsettling, synth-augmented but definitely rocking hit single “Ready To Start,” the chugging “Month Of May,” and the more mid-tempo “City With No Children,” which is mostly just guitar/bass/drums but still manages to be as effectively sweeping as any of the “eight thousand people playing at once” arrangements on Funeral. It took me longer to appreciate the electronic-tinged tunes, honestly, but quickly enough, I learned to love both the gurgling “Half Light II (No Celebration),” which strikes a remarkable atmospheric balance between foreboding and hopefulness, and the bubbly “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which would be a great dance party tune if it were about, like, getting laid instead of creative oppression and “dead shopping malls.”

The Suburbs, like most ambitious double LPs, is a touch overlong – I’ve always found “Suburban War” and “Sprawl (Flatland)” to be slow and bland in comparison to almost everything else here. But even with the comparatively superfluous songs, it’s still an enveloping experience.

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