CD Review: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs

Originally published in National Post, August 3, 2010:

The Suburbs
Merge Records

There’s an area outside of Houston called The Woodlands. Founded by an energy company in the mid-70s, the community has grown over the years to included several golf courses, office towers and a shopping mall. It is the epitome of an American suburb. And it’s where Arcade Fire’s singer/songwriter Win Butler and his younger brother Will (the band’s ebullient multi-instrumentalist) were brought up, before moving north to Montreal. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this master-planned municipality on Arcade Fire’s mind as Win about a place “built to change” on the band’s high-achieving third record, The Suburbs.

Just as the suburbs are designed to evolve, change is key to Arcade Fire’s new album. Start with the sonic remodeling: from the opening strains, a bouncy saloon-piano line announces that the band may be letting go of some of its darker shades. And as Butler croons “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling” on the title track, perhaps a statement is being made: that the Montreal 7-piece, crowned as saviours of the indie rock universe, has accepted their mantle, grown comfortable in it.

Where the band’s previous album, 2007′s Neon Bible nodded to Bruce Springsteen, here it’s Neil Young who casts the guiding light. The first obvious nod to the Canadian rocker is on Modern Man, with Butler pulling off an almost flawless Shakey impression, against a surprising musical backdrop, a new-wave patchwork of New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure.

Ready To Start provides an early burst of anthemic energy into the album, and it, and the slow-building Rococo is the closest the band gets to previous efforts. Following that combination is Empty Room, which comes on like a hive of wasps, giving the album its first true change of pace, and its first spotlight for Régine Chassagne’s vocals, screaming “when I’m by myself I can be myself” against the howls of bending guitars in the background.

Then, the album’s first two-song pairing: Half Light I and Half Light II (No Celebration). The first of the two recalls the spacey rock of Spiritualized; the male and female vocals trade verses, singing against a tide of heavy synths and waxing and waning tom rolls, beating steadily against lyrics like “the houses hide so much we’re in the half light/ none of us can tell the ocean in the shell”. The chiaroscuro to Half Light is the next track, Half Light II (No Celebration), in which Butler takes the mic on a reverby number about sin and redemption and wandering and people “afraid to pay the cost”, building up to a whoop and more multi-layered ‘80s new wave.

The album takes its pace down through songs like the dropped tuning, Crazy Horse-channeling Wasted Hours and Deep Blue, which summons Kasporov’s battle against the machine. These are songs which start slowly, but end by making the listener forget the beginning. The Suburbs is a long album, at just over an hour, and lean as it may be, if there were fat to trim, it would be found in this mid-section.

Sprawl I comes on like a sad walk through a dissolving memory, in which our narrator spends “the lonliest day of my life”, like Baudelaire’s flaneur. He is stopped by the police, asked where he lives and replies: “Well sir, I’ve been searching all the corners of the earth”.

If The Suburbs is a concept album, it’s a loose concept – it goes beyond the drinking-game inspiring drops of words like “suburbs” “town”, the allusions to psychogeographical wanders through old places. The Suburbs seems to work as a kind of scrapbook. There’s no apocalypse here – that has been dealt with already – but rather, a parental yearning for things past, and the hope of hanging on to find things to come: “You understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? / I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done.” And that growing up among the passing cars and disaffected kids inhabiting shopping malls that “rise like mountains” has its moments to hang onto. Or better said, on the excellent We Used To Wait, with a nod to Eliot’s Prufrock, a “patent on a table” who still “hopes that something pure can last”.

The album closes with The Suburbs (continued), an outro that serve as a kind of decompression. Driving away from The Woodlands, with a look back over the shoulder, Butler sing: “If I could have it back, all the time we wasted, I’d only waste it again.”

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