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Arcade Fire Review: The Suburbs Bridges the Gap Between Childhood and Adulthood

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Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”, the third studio album from the critically-adored Canadian indie rock band, does musically what John Cheever did for short stories. Like Cheever’s classic short story, “The Swimmer”, the band takes us on an image-rich, entirely eerie ride along [Burt] Lancaster Avenue with W[in] Butler Yeats behind the wheel. Surrealism mixes with realism and apocalyptic/apoplectic gloom. Yet, as the group managed with their previous two albums, the high art is accessible.

Tracks like “The Suburbs”, “Ready To Start”, “Modern Man” and “City With No Children”, at least superficially, would not sound out of place on any Top-40 radio station.  But, like an increasingly tipsy Neddy Merril swimming the length of his “friends'” swimming pools, it soon becomes clear to the listener that something has gone awry. Like the music of Depeche Mode and Neil Young, which Butler cites as an influence on the album, the sounds are alternatingly pretty and haunting. The lyrics, centering on themes of modern isolation, hipster disidentification and yes, aging rock star disillusionment, are trenchant. And still, somehow, the songs seem hopeful that the protagonists can bridge the gap between childhood innocence and propogation of offspring in a world where so little of it still seems to exist.

The album’s lyrical content is inspired by band members Win and William Butler’s upbringing in the suburbs of Houston. According to Win Butler, the album “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.”

As Butler sings on the title track:

“Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard
And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall
Meant nothin’ at all
Meant nothin’ at all
It meant nothin

“Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling and into the night.”

Similarly, “City With No Children”, probably the album’s most listenable song, contains a breezy, U2-like riff sequence with lyrics that make the suburban upbringing, and adult departure, manifest: “I feel like I’ve been living in/A city with no children in it….”

Tracks such as “Half Light I”, “Empty Rooms”  and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) let Butler’s wife, Régine Chassagne, shine, making the Broken Social Scene comparisons even more inevitable. But unlike much of the output from their less famous, canuck compatriots, there is a genuine sense throughout the album that “The Suburbs” is a greater work than the sum of its parts. Overall, it is a densely sprawling record that sounds the alarum like a semi-mournful, darkness-at-noonday firehouse siren.

Perfection of the life, or of the work, my boy? Having your cake, or letting them eat it? Going up to the Yeatsean tower, or down the Dostoyevskyean mineshaft (the well/tunnels and the lighthouse)?  Choices, choices, choices….