Saturday, April 20, 2019

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Release Date: August 2, 2010

Active Members: Win Butler, Regina Chassagne, Will Butler, Jeremy Gara, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry

Produced by Arcade Fire and Markus Dravs

Arcade Fire's third album from 2010 The Suburbs, the second year of the Obama administration, compresses history and childhood into a flickering romanticism. Wasted time morphs into sacred time. A sober and triumphant album, The Suburbs features Arcade Fire's familiar blend of Apocalyptic angst and Utopian longing.

The album begins with the "The Suburbs", featuring a driving piano in a song that imagines the suburbs as a mythical place, but hardly a lost Eden. The opening stanza blends together a maze of conflicting memories:

In the suburbs
I learned to drive
And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's key we're leavin'

Alienation, entrapment, domestic turmoil, disparate connections, and a dizzying sense of doom are ever present. And boredom.  As the narrator reflects on his childhood he contemplates the future for his children, or whether there will any future for them:

So you can understand
Why I Want A Daughter While I'm still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done

Trapped inside the miasma of the past and future the opening track sets the tone of the album, the feeling of coming awake after an intense dream. 

The high octane "Ready to Start" is about pursuing art and "businessmen drinking the blood" of artists. "Modern Man" looks at adulthood with weariness. 

"Rococo" is usually interpreted as a hipster take down, specifically the vapidity of 21st Century hipsterdom with its old timey beards and its conspicuous consumerism under the guise of creativity. Rococo art was an 18th Century style that celebrated aristocratic life in the French countryside, America's fascination with Kardashians and the British Royals sets a direct parallel. The art of being cool and feckless.

"Empty Room" sounds similar to "No Cars Go" from Neon Bible with Regina Chassagne taking the lead on the lyrics in a hymn to solitude. "City With No Children" paints another dystopian landscape as the title describes, possibly in reference to the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men from 2006. "Half Light I" imagines a future where life carries on underground after a world war told from a child's point of view, a bleak lullaby:

Our heads are just houses
Without enough windows
You say you hear human voices
But they're only echoes

The companion song "Half Light II (no celebration)" begins with a John Carpenter style synthesizer and reverts back to the present with references to the market crashes of 2008 and natural disasters wiping out cities. The Springsteen sentiments of Nebraska and the Cardigans style pop rhythms are vintage Arcade Fire. 

"Suburban War" addresses lost connections and broken relationships. The song laments music acting as a divisive force. Verses from the "The Suburbs" appear again in a much different context, detailing the fall of a once close friend.

"Month of May" is a rocker about the days before the uprising, but nothing actually happens, "the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight." 

"Wasted Hours" is another highlight, a tender, sensitive song about boredom and being young. Boredom was a primary occupation of punk, the idea of living in an age of dashed expectations - that certain politicians would use to their advantage. Rivers were catching fire and cities were turning into wastelands, the song imagines the fires making their way towards the suburbs. "Wasted Hours" transforms the stifled feelings of the past into a reflective melancholy.

"We Used To Wait" could justifiably be accused of overwrought nostalgia, maybe Arcade Fire at their sincere worst, yet it builds up to a soaring crescendo that moves into something transcendent. Lost connections in the modern world appear paradoxical when communication is ever faster - the transition from Gen X to Gen Y. 

"Sprawl 1 (Flatland)" is a somber song about a return to the old neighborhood where everything and nothing has changed. "Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is the best song on the album, Regina's vocal brings some hope to the hopeless landscapes described on the record. The Suburbs ends with a reprise of the title track, the narrator admitting if he could go back he'd waste it all over again.

The Suburbs conjures a collage of feelings and images amidst all the emotional wreckage of the past and present. The angst of Arcade Fire is on full display - from their aching sentimentality and potent imagery. Not a rock opera in the vein of Tommy or Ziggy Stardust, but a central concept is there: the emotional toll of time moving in all directions at once. Challenging to get through in one sitting, yet The Suburbs yields much in meaning and texture through multiple listens.

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