When Arcade Fire turned up in 2004, it was with nothing less than the most uplifting reflection on mortality ever put to record, the elegiac yet hopeful Funeral. Their 2007 follow-up Neon Bible was less focused, but more anthemic — tracks like “Keep the Car Running” soared, buoyed by the driving, almost reckless strings and pianos behind vocalists Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.
Now they’re back in concept-album territory with The Suburbs (Merge Records), and while suburban sprawl might seem like a more prosaic subject than the meaning of life and death, their 16-song exploration of the ennui and misspent youth in the rolling developments beyond America’s cities make it almost as fascinating.
While the album may lack the dynamic anthems that marked Bible — with 16 tracks, it’s harder for the standout songs to break out of the mix — The Suburbs does make up for it in thematic ingenuity. It feels in some ways like the flip side to Lou Reed’s New York (1989) — instead of exposing the underbelly of urban existence, Arcade Fire turns a microscope on the suburban life their classmates warned them about in art school.
It’s telling that the theme of “suburban war” turns up well beyond the song of that name, including in the incongruously jaunty title track (“by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored,” sings Butler). The album seems populated from front to back with people whose comfortable lives in “houses built in the ’70s” have cost them their identities — in “Suburban War,” Butler sings “All my old friends, they don’t know me now.”
Their counterpoint are the “modern kids” of songs like “Rococo,” who “use great big words that they don’t understand.” Prone to “standing with their arms folded tight” — as the band sings on “Month of May,” one of the few all-out rockers on the album — they have “so much pain for someone so young.” But pain isn’t limited to a particular age group in the Arcade Fire universe.
The anchor of The Suburbs is “Sprawl” parts I and II — the first, a moody, meditative dirge where the narrator goes searching for the house of his birth, but can’t “read the number in the dark.” It’s a bleak painting of lost innocence — almost too much so — but in part II, Chassagne brightens the mood with a Blondie/Abba vibe that seems optimistic even as it laments a life spent lived “on the surface.”
It’s one of several tracks that’s markedly slicker than Arcade Fire’s previous work — they famously began their career recording in a Maine barn, but there’s not a song in this collection that doesn’t sound exquisitely studio-produced. That doesn’t mean their Talking Heads-meets-Springsteen symphonic mythologizing isn’t still compelling, but “The Suburbs” might have been an even better album with fewer songs, recorded with more abandon.
But that’s quibbling. In this day and age, to have such an ambitious, literate work from a band still interested in exploring themes beyond love and lust — in a carefully orchestrated cycle of songs — is nothing less than a wonder, not to mention a pleasure.
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