“Sometimes I wonder if the world is so small that we can never get away from the sprawl…” —Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
“I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts…” —Arcade Fire, “City With No Children”
When I was 17, I saw Arcade Fire in what remains the best live performance I have ever seen. It was February 2, 2005, and even though the band’s first album, Funeral, had only been out for a little over four months, it seemed like Arcade Fire had been around forever. By the time the concert rolled around, the band was big enough to bring David Byrne on stage to perform an encore for an audience that included, among others, David Bowie.
In fact, Funeral had had so much buzz prior to its release that it seemed destined to underwhelm. I, for one, was ready to play contrarian and bash it, if only because “Arcade Fire” is a really stupid name for a band. The only problem, though, was that the album was legitimately awesome. From the opening track, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” I loved it, and I was happy, for once, to completely understand what all the fuss was about.
Of course, with such a hyped and successful debut, there come questions of whether or not those fortunes can be duplicated. And while I really like their second album, and I really enjoyed them the next time I saw them in concert, I had started to think that Funeral was the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle success story that only happens to a band once.
The release of The Suburbs, though, has changed that. The Suburbs is better than Funeral and, quite possibly, much better. It is an album without a weak song, an album without any readily apparent weakness. More importantly, though, it is an album that is stunning and ambitious and beautiful. It is an album that makes you want to listen to it over and over again and, even better, it is an album that actually rewards multiple listens.
The Suburbs is, predictably, about the suburbs, but it’s not the anti-suburbia screed that some (including myself) had anticipated. Do not be fooled by song titles like “City With No Children,” “Suburban Wars,” “Wasted Hours,” and “Sprawl”—the emotions on this album are much more complicated than that. Arcade Fire has always been susceptible to bombast, in a way that makes songs like “Intervention” and “Crown of Love” seem pretentious to the band’s critics. The Suburbs doesn’t hide from this element of the band’s sound, but it refrains from the temptation to use big orchestral arrangements to underscore the grand political points or the overwhelming despair that would turn this album into a polemic against cul-de-sac culture.
Instead, the album focuses on how individuals are shaped by the suburbs. As a result, the suburbs become the setting for happy formative moments, so the album’s anti-suburb sentiments are balanced by a nostalgia for the time spent growing up there. In the album’s opening track, Win Butler sings, “The kids want to be so hard, but in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard.” The trick is in how this line is sung. Butler holds his voice on the word “screaming,” allowing you to infer that the “hard” kids are screaming from terror, only to turn on a dime and refer back to a childhood memory of playing outside.
The album is full of subtle tricks like this, in which lines or motifs or musical phrasings are repeated in radically new contexts in a different song. Lines that were happy in one song, are tragic in another, and vice versa. Despite comprising several viable singles (“Ready To Start,” “Month of May,” “Sprawl II (Mountain Beyond Mountains),” “We Used To Wait”), The Suburbs is an incredibly coherent album, the most logically connected album I’ve heard since at least Kid A. Instead of making it sound repetitive or stilted, though, this only makes The Suburbs sound richer, like a great novel set to music.
The opening track—titled, simply enough, “The Suburbs”—has a sing-song quality that is immediately welcoming, disarming, and catchy. It sets the tone of the album, that of people who have outgrown the suburbs recollecting a childhood there and debating whether or not to go back. The lyrics veer into the acerbic—“All of the houses they built in the ‘70s finally fall…it meant nothing at all”—but the tone of the song itself remains relaxed.
“Ready To Start,” the second track, picks up the pace. It’s the kind of rock song that garners Arcade Fire comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. The lyrics are also more pungent, including the delightfully dually damning line, “If the businessmen drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would…”* This will not be the last time that the record skewers “the kids.”
*Although this line was better when I first heard it as “the kids in HIGH school.” Art school kids are too easy a target.
The record’s most antagonistic song is, in fact, saved for “the kids,” who are lambasted in “Rococo.” Immediately following “Modern Man,” “Rococo” suggests a visit to the “modern kids.” While the modern man was given a sympathetic portrait, the modern kids “will eat right out of your hands, using big words that they don’t understand,” and “they build it up just to burn it back down.” These, of course, are Arcade Fire’s fans. The swirling strings of this song represent the most grandiose sound, in an indictment of the pretension that Arcade Fire sees in its own generation.
While “kids” receive a great deal of scorn on this album—for their pretension, for their arrogance, for their ingratitude—children fare much better. The album is really about childhood as much as it is about the suburbs themselves. After the loss of childhood is lamented in “City With No Children,” the album’s first two-part song, “Half-Light,” meditates on how things from childhood seem barely recognizable. The first part is slow and hazy, like a vague recollection from childhood. “Half-Light II (No Celebration)” is paced faster, yet feels more depressing. The decidedly adult perspective is quicker to let go: “In this town where I was born, I now see through a dead man’s eyes / One day they will see it’s long gone.”
The second half of the album opens with the energetic “Month of May,” a single released in early June. Without the context of the album, “Month of May” sounds like a rather simple, bare-riff rock song. Kicking off the second half, though, and following the slow “Suburban War,” the song reignites the album. The repeated refrain—“The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight”—sounds less like it’s trying to be clever and, in the context of an album that knocks “the kids” so thoroughly, sounds almost playful and endearing.
“Month of May” is followed by “Wasted Hours,” which is possibly my favorite track on the record. The song blends a sparse and delicate arrangement with images and lyrics from earlier songs on the album, while also introducing a few integral new ones. Put together, though, “Wasted Hours” probably paints the most complete portrait of “the suburbs” of any song on The Suburbs. Presenting a perfect portrait of childhood in the suburbs as “wasted hours” that “turn into a life that we can live,” the song is neither sentimental nor vitriolic.
The next four tracks include three songs that could get radio play, if Arcade Fire were the type of band that got much radio play. “Deep Blue” builds great vocal harmonies; “We Used To Wait” (which is the next announced single from the album) starts pointedly, with a repeated piano note, and gradually builds to an aggressive and thrilling climax. The second two-parter, “Sprawl,” is the most obviously anti-suburb track on the album. Part one, “(Flatland),” refrains from biting lyrics, but contains the long, slow musical build that can only denote despair. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” is a much more upbeat number musically, though its lyrics portray the suburbs as the stifling, inescapable wasteland it is so often portrayed as. Nevertheless, it is the most infectious song on the album.
The Suburbs ends with a reprise of the opening track, which functions as an outro. As the song fades to silence, Butler’s voice sums up the entire album: “If I could have it back—all the time we wasted—I’d only waste it again…. You know I would love to waste it again, waste it again and again and again….”
The perfectly summarized ambiguity there—the nostalgia for a waste of time—is the perfect cap to a complete album. This is not a just a collection of great songs, or even a great collection of songs. The Suburbs is a great work of art, one that impresses you immediately and only gets better with time. It’s the kind of album worth fussing about.