Artist: The Arcade Fire
Time: 16 tracks/1 hour
The Arcade Fire is back with their third full-length, and like its predecessors, it's a theme record, this time focusing on the topic of, you guessed it, the suburbs. If there was only one adjective to describe this effort, it would be "sprawling," and considering the subject matter, I'm guessing that was probably intentional on the band's part. With sixteen tracks encompassing a broad range of styles and genres, this record is just too much to take in during just one listen. I personally went through it three times before I felt comfortable enough to review it.
While the band mixes it up, they do manage to make the diversity in the songs work for the record, rather than against it. Starting with the baroque chamber pop of the title track, they careen through a variety of styles, making them all flow seamlessly. This is most evident in the way the glam punk of "Month of May" segues into the country folk of "Wasted Hours." As far as the quality of the music, the album's best songs are its most ambitious. "Half Light I" builds into "Half Light II (No Celebration)," relying on propulsive drumming and simmering synthesizers as well as some lush string arrangements. The album's climax, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is one of its strongest tracks and features bubbling 80's synths and pulsating drums along with Regine Chassagne's light vocals that grow in intensity as the song moves along. It wouldn't sound out of place on a Blondie record.
And now the question must be asked: how does The Arcade Fire feel about the suburbs? Well, if you couldn't tell from the bleak, empty photographs of suburban homes in the album art, then lyrics like these from the title track will definitely give it away:
So can you understand
why I want a daughter
I appreciate lyrics like this, because it shows the author is thinking critically about things, and not enough of that happens in society these days. However, it is certainly possible to engage in critical thinking and still come to the wrong conclusion. It's not the rampant consumerism pervading the suburbs that is the root of the world's ills, but the rampant sin that pervades the hearts of men. Of course, the saving grace of Christ is what opens our eyes to these truths, so it's natural for someone who hasn't embraced that to hang the blame on something else.
The Suburbs is a strong effort and worthy of picking up. It's not as good as their debut, Funeral, but it is much better than the hit-and-miss Neon Bible. It's musically diverse, yet cohesive at the same time, and while I don't agree with its conclusions, its lyrics make some interesting points that will get you thinking about the way we live our lives.
Whether sketches from Monty Python, or films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, plenty of creative people have played with the idea that suburban life has its dark side. Having already taken on some big themes in Funeral and Neon Bible, Arcade Fire turn their attention to this theme.
More specifically, they wanted to capture some of the feelings of growing up in the suburbs as teenagers. At the time it was written, front man Win Butler had spent most of his life in Houston, but felt it the place to which he is least connected. “Half Light II” picks this out: “Oh, this city's changed so much since I was a little child / Pray to God I won't live to see the death of everything that's wild / 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.”
Fittingly, they open with the title track’s jaunty tune that only reveals its iconoclastic underbelly when inspecting the lyrics. Like the Bible, the opening piece is littered with signs of tensions, fracture and personal warfare and they stretch out the idea across the disc, particularly on “Suburban War.”
Arcade Fire seem happier describing symptoms than ascribing causes, but they do give clues. Empty consumerism gets referenced in “Sprawl II” as Régine Chassagne sings about "Living in the sprawl, dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there's no end in sight." But the pure landscape of the suburbs gets its share of criticism in the way that roads get built first (to the mall) and the consequent disconnection and the need to drive everywhere symbolizes the loss of community. The car is the most potent symbol of this detachment.
Noticeably, they identify with the problem as well as pointing the finger “You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount / I used to think I was not like them but I'm beginning to have my doubts.” Similarly, in the punky “Month of May” the writer ends up with his “arms folded tight” in the same defensive way as the kids he has just criticized.
Generally, their famed crescendos and quieter counterpoints are flattened out here, as they sound like a mash-up of Talking Heads, Neil Young, The Cars and especially The Violet Burning, as well as making brief excursions into jangly guitar (“Suburban War”) and disco (“Sprawl II”).
The collection starts with five fine tracks out of six, but the particular standout songs are the opener, reprised briefly as an outro, and the vicariously patronising “Rococo,” which glows with menace and fracture, using its title as a vocal hook. “Sprawl II” manages to make its points about the dehumanisation of life to a disco-synth backing that can only remind the listener of “Heart of Glass.”
I have often been frustrated that Christian bands do not cover lyrical ground with Arcade Fire’s perception and depth. These are just the areas that faith-motivated artists need to address, using their insight to highlight the shortcomings of the culture around us. Sadly, the Christian sub-culture seems to think that singing a few “I will surrenders” in predictable formats might make connections with the disaffected. Ex-Mormon Win Butler is familiar enough with the background of faith to step up, use tangible imagery and do the job that Christians should be doing.
But on this release, the songs are more personal. The band still manages to point the way to a better society via their hopes and dreams (“Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last”) and use their multi-instrumentalist skills to present the songs in consistently satisfying style. This one will appeal for years.