It’d be a farce to compare Arcade Fire’s new album “The Suburbs” to its previous couple of efforts – 2007’s “Neon Bible” and 2004 debut “Funeral.” The Montreal-based rock outfit proves itself to be a new band with each new record. What each has, though, is a running theme, and each a march down memory lane.
For this one, its concept is the title: the term “Suburbs” sparks imagery of safety, samey-samey and family. For frontman Win Butler, the suburbs
bring up strong (dis)illusions of his upbringing outside of Houston and his move from there, written in love letters and hate mail.
It all begins with the bounding piano-led title track, like an ornate, sunny arch entryway, tricking one into thinking this drive through the ‘burbs is gonna be easy. The arch falls down on its plywood supports as “Ready to Start” proves to be the real mood-setter, with its ominous strings and polarizing lyrics: “All the kids have always known / the emperor wears no clothes / but bow down to him anyway / it’s better than being alone.” In a perfectly paced chorus, he sings “If I was scared, I would / If I was bored, you know I would / If I was yours, but I’m not / Now I’m ready to start” waging an ambiguous battle against the false idols (and straw men) of his idyllic prison.
The rest of the album continues this trend, in Christian metaphors, narrative attacks on “the kids” sung with a snarl and a mix of nostalgia and dread, similar to the sentiment in The National’s “Bloodbuzz OH.” It’s a look back for Butler and his coming into the light, or rather, the “Half Light,” a theme in two movements. “Half Light I” is the cool down from the work-out that is the first half of the record, while “Half Light II” is a another warm-up, with a bleating synthesizer, orchestral umph, a gorgeous build and shared vocals between Win and wife Regine Chassagne on lines like “Pray that god won’t live to see / the death of everything that’s wild.”
Regine takes full lead on “Empty Room,” a fast-tempo rocker, with a whale-wail on guitar like a My Bloody Valentine cut; she’s also on closer “Sprawl II,” a dance track that Columbia records probably wished that MGMT wrote instead of “Congratulations.”
“Rococo” has great sonic dynamic and melodic ideas, but the lyrics really “burn it back down.” It works better as an art experiment – just like “Suburban War,” which just feels like a long, sad nursery rhyme with an ill-fitting chorus, like two songs cut and pasted together.
Snotty punk-ish “Month of May” perfectly transitions into a sweaty exhale, “Wasted Hours,” like plopping down into a hammock on a summer day. That song’s sweet, vulnerable refrain is cheapened with the “la la la las,” making it seem like Arcade Fire is making fun of itself for even writing the tune to begin with.
Overall, it’s obvious the band took their time recording “The Suburbs”; the melodies fresh the arrangements creative. In much the same way, Butler’s self-conscious lyrics sound like well-edited drafts of a thesis; he says precisely what he means in a wealth of metaphors, sometimes in ways that only he understands, and sometimes in ways that we all can understand (like in “We Use to Wait”: “Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last”).
So many songs on “The Suburbs” are perfect – it’s a shame that the album is too long. At 16 tracks, it makes me think they wrote a good amount of material and had a passionate debate over what to cut – or they wrote exactly 16 and couldn’t bear cutting anything at all. Either way, it leaves this listener exhausted and feeling a little bit down; “The Suburbs” is great, really, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" is out tomorrow. Listen to the album in its entirety here; what do you think?