Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

How much can you read into an opening line? The Suburbs opens with “In the suburbs I learn to drive”. What does this mean? Is it setting up a bildungsroman, the adolescent learning to do manly, responsible things? Is it speaking of the character’s yearn to escape, spending his life in the suburbs trying desperately to leave it?

Personally, I like to read it as a statement from the band themselves. On Funeral’s final track, Regine Chassagne mournfully weeps “I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life” using a car as a metaphor for a family, the youngsters graduating from the backseat to the drivers as they become head of the herd. In my mind, what is being said here is “Hey, remember Neon Bible? That album where we tried too hard to be grandiose and came off alienating people? Where we tried to save the world and forgot to save the people in it? Let’s pretend that didn’t happen. This is the real sequel to Funeral”.

And it is. It really is. Everything you loved about Funeral is here, with the added assistance of repeated phrases and explicitly mentioned themes. Maybe it’s lacking in outright riffs that will stay with you for years (go on, humm the intros to Tunnels or Wake Up, I know you can), but the blend of instruments is perhaps more impressive when there isn’t a strong single phrase to fall back on. It is reminiscent initially of The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love, being as it is a theatrical and dense concept album complete with handy reminders of what has come before. Some might get bored with the number of times they hear the words “modern”, “kids” or “suburbs” (as we speak I’m developing a drinking game which involves taking a shot every time one of these three words is mentioned, and is guaranteed to hospitalise even the hardiest of drinkers by about track 8), but it certainly succeeds in making the album seem to be a singular vision.

The songs are not consumed by strings or keyboards, and guitars are a constant fixture, Arcade Fire seem closer to The White Stripes or The Strokes than many of their fans might care to admit. Of course, the inventiveness, complexity and lyricism is ten-fold that of most garage rock bands, but when the album does delve into that sort of territory, it comes up with Month Of May, which, quite simply, rocks, and I will fight anyone to the death who claims it has no place on this album. Its irregularity is it’s advantage, the juxtaposition between it and its predecessor on the album, the lilting but a tad dull Suburban War, is one of the highlights of the album, heightened gloriously by a callous cry of “1, 2, 3, 4” by Win Butler, whose voice sounds as beautiful and anthemic (although maybe not as pained or delicate) as it ever has. It is superb that the track came from the same people that made the classically-infused, death-obsessed Funeral, and yet somehow, when you listen to it, the progression makes sense. And finally, a touch of humour from Arcade Fire. How often have they played with urgency and momentum to crowds full of “kids all standing with their arms folded tight”? Month Of May is a hell of a rebuttal to that culture, regardless of it being the one that hails them as Gods.

The opening two tracks, make a fine introduction into what Arcade Fire are trying to do with this album, although after that there is something of a letdown. Rococo is almost cringe-worthy in its patronising lyricism, “lets go down and talk to the modern kids, they will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand” and definitely seems like a dud. It’s followed up by Empty Room, which is akin to a piece of fluff, seeming to take up less space than it actually does. Is it really a whole 3 minutes? It seems to come and go with barely a whisper, possibly due to the use of Regine instead of Win on vocals. City With No Children picks it back up, built around a single riff in a way that does not quite suit the rest of the album, but along with the hand claps and fist-punching vocals it grants the album a real sense of occasion after something of a purple patch.

The two Half Lights are too meandering to be classics but are definitely progressive enough to maintain interest. The tempo is a little slow and at this point of the album you begin to wonder how it will sustain 16 tracks and over it an hour. In all honesty, it can’t, tracks 3-5 could go without losing much of the album’s drive or purpose, if anything it would help it, and have TWO Half Lights seems excessive, even if they do separate jobs. If I were being picky, I would give Half Light I the chop due to how weak Regine’s vocals sound and how resistant it is to any change of style over its 4 minutes. I was waiting for a sudden Wake Up-esque breakdown to lighten the tone, but it never came.

Suburban War is pleasant enough, a mid-album track that is enough of a placeholder to not disrupt the album, but it doesn’t seem to warrant its own existence, as a singular piece, much like a few of the previously mentioned tracks. And this point it all felt that Arcade Fire were building up to something that wasn’t happening. When Month Of May hit, I realised they were just taking their sweet time about it. And then the rest of the album happened, and I was gob-smacked.

Perhaps the intention was to make a bottom-heavy album, which is slightly strange but this is Arcade Fire after all, but, for me at least, every track from Month Of May to the end is astonishing (accepting the fact that The Suburbs (Continued) is something of an epilogue), each one a powerful and detailed individual track that adds to the surrounding tracks as well as being plain brilliant in their own right. Wasted Hours spins a perfect tale of being a youth in a boring town, wanting to get out and see the world, and then looking back on these days of yearning with fond nostalgia. Deep Blue is another track I have heard people talk ill of because of it seeming out of place (re: Month Of May) but this unpredictability underpins what makes the second half of this album so special. The lyrics are intriguing in their strangeness but are addictive, as is the more upbeat nature of the instruments.

We Used To Wait is a masterpiece that many will fail to understand due to it being so self-referential. Again, Arcade Fire pull out a little comedy as they recall a time where patience was a virtue, where waiting days to hear via letter about an old friend was a worthy wait. The tension built up in the minute-long outro as the words “wait for it” are chanted intermittently in the background is an equal to the tension of that letter. Wait for an envelope to drop, wait for a chorus to drop. But, as in this case, “sometimes in never came”. A masterpiece in bringing the listener into the story and a gorgeous exercise in restraint.

Sprawl is a good word to use for many things, the concept of a suburban area, the album format as a whole with a sprawl of songs making it up, even Arcade Fire themselves, anyone whose seen them play live would agree that a sprawl of multi-instrumentalists is exactly what they are. We hear the two very distinct sides of Arcade Fire in the two Sprawl tracks, from a doom-laden, potently gothic tale of despair to a synth-drenched track I’d have to describe as Regine’s best ever, and suiting her relatively limited talents as a vocalist superbly. It is the longest on the album, but it does not outstay its welcome, and it shows quite how capable this band are at throwing everything into the mix and making it gel together and work. Even though the album is an hour old by this stage, a point at which bands would normally be accepting the need for two-minute filler to get the album done, the extravagance is not unwelcome.

And then, all of a sudden, the album is over, returning to where it begun, merging with the first track to create a perfect circle. If there’s one thing, one little lesson to learn from this album, Win Butler urges that it is to move past the feeling. Maybe we can all go there together, band, listener, the sprawling suburbs that are craved and yet disposed of so easily. All of us, moving past the feeling.

(Rating: 18/20)


About Alex Pavitt
I work in the field of emotion. My tools are instinctual feelings and my laptop is the medium between my brain and the outside world. I deconstruct and rebuild. I imagine. I steal other people's lyrics because somtimes, my own words aren't enough. I spend all of my time somewhere inside my head. I worship Douglas Adams, and in the back of my mind I am always painfully aware that I will never be as good as him or, for that matter, anybody else.

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