Let’s Take a Drive Through the Sprawl: Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” in Review

Originally Published for BU Common Ground on 12/28/10

Arcade Fire has a knack for setting my imagination wild. To me, 2004’s modern classic Funeral felt like a raging fire spreading through a small and wintery Canadian town whereas 2007’s Neon Bible was more of a late night walk through post-9/11 New York City. The Suburbs projects an image of Win Butler taking a mid-afternoon drive through his old hometown, past his old house, high school, and park while lamenting the loss of his childhood.  While the Suburbs may not be the best of Arcade Fire’s three albums (Funeral still reigns supreme), it is certainly a whole new masterpiece.  Whereas Funeral gave us moments of reflection in songs such as “Neighborhood #1” (Tunnels),” The Suburbs further reflects on the past, childhood, and all that’s changed as we grow older.

Right from the start, The Suburbs is different from any other Arcade Fire album.  The opening track (“The Suburbs”) with its playful shuffle and musical cheerfulness serves as a perfect musical counterpoint to Neon Bible’s closer, “My Body Is A Cage.”  Whereas the latter built into a bombastically brilliant catharsis with its constant church organ, “The Suburbs” sounds surprising simple and reserved for Arcade Fire, however, not any less beautiful.  Under the track’s guise of musical cheeriness lies a much bleaker exploration of returning home after years away.  Arcade Fire’s chief lyricist, Win Butler reflects upon his roots in the suburbs of Houston; such a return isn’t a lavish celebration, but rather a dreary journey into childhood, when life was simpler.  Throughout the course of the album, Butler remembers those who have since forgotten him and those dreams that have been long unfulfilled.

In the title track, Butler seems to long for the past (“but in my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard”) even though as a child he was desperate to get out of the suburbs.  “The Suburbs” also contains one of the most beautiful moments of the album in which Butler longingly pleads, “So can you understand? Why I want a daughter while I’m still young, I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty before this damage is done. But if it’s too much to ask, it’s too much to ask, then send me a son.”  Win Butler realizes that he is growing older, having just entered his 30s, and while he longs for his childhood spent in the suburbs, he also wants to move on to the next phase of his life: parenthood.
“Suburban War” appears halfway through the album and serves as a microcosm for the whole record.  Lyrically striking, the track recalls friendships long gone as Butler continues the image of driving through his suburb, remarking how his ever-changing hometown seems so distant to him (“This town’s so strange –  they built it to cha
nge and while we sleep, we know the streets get rearranged”).  Butler laments those years long ago  “with my old friends it was so different then,” however there can be no return to the fondly-remembered past. “Suburban War” slowly builds, climaxing in a crashing and tom-tom banging spree in which Butler croons, “all my old friends, they don’t know me now.”  Here, Bulter copes with the inescapable reality that as we grow older, we lose touch with those who we once loved.  Despite this, Butler can never fo
rget those who have had such a strong place in his life (“Now the cities we live in could be distant stars and I search for you in every passing car”).
In the beautiful closer, “The Suburbs (Continued)”, the band transforms the cheerful shuffle of the title track into a melancholy reflection on the passing of time.  In this song, Win Butler whispers that “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again, If I could have it back, you know I would love to waste it again.”  These despairingly beautiful lyrics, combined with the grandioso string arrangement give magnificence to Butler’s message that time wasted is time well spent.
However, this album isn’t just a sad lament of childhood and all things past, it is still very much a great rock record.  After the final chords of “The Suburbs” play, we are instantly grabbed into the anthemic “Ready To Start” which pounds into listeners the painfulness and awkwardness at the end of a relationship in which one isn’t quite ready to “still be friend
s.”  “Rococo” is a unique track that sounds like a tongue-in-cheek jab at “modern kids” and the so-called ‘hipster’ culture.  “Empty Room” is a hectic and fun romp complete with spiraling string arrangements that transitions wonderfully into “City With No Children.”  The album makes of a bit of a somber change with the string-heavy “Half Light I,” however, before the album can continue along this calmer pace, Arcade Fire brings us back with the electronic-ish “Half Light II (No Celebration).”  The unexpected, Queens-of-the-Stone-Age sounding, “Month of May,” may be disliked by many, yet, it is a fun change-of-pace rocker that while not adding to the overall meaning of the album, certainly doesn’t detract from it.  The Suburbs shines again with “We Used to Wait,” a track driven by piano and drums that eloquently builds and crashes before “Sprawl (Flatland)” picks up the audience and once again drives them through Win Butler’s hometown.  The melancholy “(Flatland)” leads to the most cheerful song yet, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, a synth-heavy throwback to ABBA and the disco years in which Régine Chassagne reflects on a childhood spent “living in the sprawl.”
Overall, The Suburbs is much more emotionally-wrenching than any of Arcade Fire’s previous albums.  The lyrics are those of a band at its strongest, showing more emotional meaning thanFuneral while being less overtly political than Neon Bible.  While the lyrics may be radiant, the music is still very strong.  Even so, The Suburbs sounds more subdued than previous efforts.  The songs of The Suburbs are not nearly as extravagant (especially the harmonies and string arrangements) and yet, it doesn’t detract.  Arcade Fire turned down their lavishness for this record in order to further the sense of remorse, regret, and reflection of a past that can no longer be attained.

Pros:
–       Amazing beautiful musical arrangements and lyrics that heighten the band’s mournful loss of childhood.
–       While some may complain about the length of the album (clocking in at just over an hour), I personally love the dedication Arcade Fire showed by releasing such a sprawling record.  Honestly, while some songs may not be as strong as the others, not one of the songs is outright bad.
–       Effectively continues Arcade Fire’s sonic development. All of their three albums are marvelous which sounding unique in their own ways.
Cons:
–       “The Suburbs (Continued)” is such a beautiful piece of music that I would love to continue for another minute or two.
–       Songs such as “Wasted Hours” or “Deep Blue” could be further developed.
Overall Grade: 9.5

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