Arcade Fire is a band at the top of its game. With The Suburbs, the Montreal septet has found a way to expand its sound and simultaneously make it more accessible. The simplest of touches that Win Butler and Co. employ here are executed, in most cases, flawlessly. There are the usual delightful piano melodies and powerful, soaring orchestral touches. But there are also shimmering synths, and perhaps more gritty guitar than we’ve ever heard from the band through three full-length studio releases.
What is further impressive about The Suburbs is that it adheres to a narrative without seeming overwrought or contrived. Upon multiple listens, the ideas of urban sprawl and suburban development are made to seem somewhat evil, as are the influences of power and money. Certainly not novel concepts or viewpoints, but to write lyrics that address them in interesting ways while still fitting within a storyline and song structures is a skillful turn.
We can divide The Suburbs into fourths by the tracklisting. While the album sounds best when listened to from start to finish, there are definitely shifts that occur from 1-4 to 5-8 to 9-12 to 13-16.
The Suburbs Part I: “The Suburbs”, “Ready To Start”, “Modern Man” and “Rococo”
The combination of the piano melody and rhythm section on “The Suburbs” is magical. The narrative begins with Butler telling the tale of a young couple sure they can flee the potential drudgery of the suburbs together; that their love will be enough. But time, apathy and changing priorities settle in. Butler sings of wanting children, to pass down culture before it’s obliterated by the cookie-cutter suburban lifestyle. And the individuality of the couple’s youth is faded already: “And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall /And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall / Meant nothin’ at all”
With that, the album transitions to another of its strongest tracks, “Ready To Start”. The music and lyrics are all about timing. I think it’s about being open to possibility not because of fear or boredom, but rather because it feels right. There’s solid guitar work here, and a shotgun-drumbeat that keeps the song rolling along. And Butler’s vocals move from whisper to yelp with ease. The next track, “Modern Man”, might be the most straightforward rock song on the album. Again, it’s powered by a steady and catchy guitar melody. What is a modern man, and should you aspire to be one? Hard to tell from these lyrics.
And then there’s “Rococo” to finish off that first block. It moves right into references to “modern kids” and how they’re “using big words that they don’t understand.” This song, with its background of wailing strings and buildup to a powerful crescendo of Butler repeating that word that becomes so easy to sing along to: “Rococo, rococo rococo…” It’s powerful stuff.
The Suburbs Part II: “Empty Room”, “City With No Children”, “Half Light I” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)”
This second quarter of the album begins with a frantic string section that gives way to a wailing, siren-like guitar and Regine Chassagne’s lovely vocals on “Empty Room”. “When I’m by myself, I can be myself” she sings. Leave outside influences behind.
And then there is the tale of falling in love with the ideal of someone or something, “City With No Children”. But when the actual truth of the person or thing is revealed, there is disappointment. It’s another song driven by a great guitar melody and a stomping chorus. There’s the stabs at wealth that cloud one’s vision of what’s important: “Never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount”, and the feeling of living in a place where there’s no wonder or curiosity left.
“Half Light I” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” might be the closest we get to the Arcade Fire we might recognize from Funeral and Neon Bible. Again, Chassagne’s vocals are wonderful on “Half Light I,” and she’s accompanied by somber strings and then, starting in the second verse, her husband Butler’s dramatic croon. This track is just so beautifully done, and in such a simple way. “Half Light II” keeps the strings, adds a synth/drum beat and ups the tempo slightly. But the song is still a composition, which I think is what separates these two tracks from the rest of the album. When Butler builds to the wonderful last verse: “Though we knew this day would come / Still it took us by surprise / In this town where I was born / I now see through a dead man’s eyes“, it’s a powerful moment. One about the places we love and cherish inevitably changing into something far less recognizable.
The Suburbs Part III: “Suburban War”, “Month Of May”, “Wasted Hours” and “Deep Blue”
“This town’s so strange. They built it to change. And while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged. My old friends, we were so different then. Before your war against the suburbs began.” In some strange way, the first track in this block, “Suburban War” reminds me of classic-rock tune “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas. It is somber, with its simple repeated guitar line, slow build and pounding drumroll. And it paints a picture of all we know fading before us. Like dust in the wind. Too much? Okay, let’s rock out.
When I first heard “Month of May”, I was somewhat concerned with how it would fit in the overall structure of the album. But it’s placed perfectly here, brimming with rock chops and sensibility in direct contrast to “Suburban War”. There’s not much to this track, just a lot of fuzzed-out guitar, some eerie background bells & whistles that help build the tension. There’s no huge payoff here, as the song just fades into…
The spinning, strumming gold of “Wasted Hours”. As I listened and re-listened to this album, I was really shocked at how many of the songs arise from a good guitar melody (as I’ve already mentioned several times). This tune is no different, but bumps steadily along and sticks to the theme of fighting against that complacency that creeps into suburban life. “Deep Blue” continues in that same vein, but adds a crisp keyboard piece that helps drive things along. And there’s the strings and synth that work their way into the song with Butler’s “la la la la la la la”-ing. Not an overpowering song, but so well-executed that it’s hard to resist.
The Suburbs Part IV: “We Used To Wait”, “Sprawl (Flatland)”, “Sprawl (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “The Suburbs (Continued)”
Were I to enumerate the strongest five songs on this album, they would be these: “The Suburbs”, “Ready To Start”, “Rococo”, “We Used To Wait” and “Sprawl (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”.
With that said, “We Used To Wait” might be my personal favorite. I find the bouncy keyboard harmony and Butler’s rangy vocals to bed in perfect sync here. It must be listened to multiple times to be appreciated.
And here we have the biggest misstep on The Suburbs: “Sprawl (Flatland)”. For whatever reason, this song falls a bit flat with me. It never grabs the way most of the rest of the album does. Problem with that assessment is, there are some wonderful lyrics here:
“Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay
I couldn’t read the number in the dark
You said ‘let’s save it for another day’
I took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You’re talking at me, but I’m still far away”
So even when the band misses, it still hits. I think it’s the slower pacing and plodding nature of this one that fail to keep my interest.
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, by contrast, is aflutter with beautiful touches. Chassagne’s vocals are almost Blondie-like here, but when tied together with the keyboards, lush synths, handclaps and thumping beat, they sound delightful. It’s a great lead-in to the album’s bookend, “The Suburbs (Continued)”. The album’s final track takes its first and puts it in outer space with a string section. Very slow, very subdued, and the album fades out with a whisper…
There is much to be absorbed with The Suburbs. After repeated listens, I still find nuance and inventiveness with each one. It will be on my list of the best albums of 2010, to be sure. The band has changed its sound in a simple way, but it’s not the kind of tweak that can’t be built upon or reversed if need be. This record is a snapshot of where Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, William Butler, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara are at this particular moment in time. And they’ve arrived at something special.