When I saw Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden (the day before their YouTube Unstaged Performance), I was overwhelmed with emotion as I danced and sang along as loud as I could with audience members around me doing much the same. It got me thinking about how the band manages to have such a cathartic effect on people. I don't think the band has recorded a single positive song, yet I and most present were all too eager to smile from ear to ear as we hollered their lyrics at them as tunefully as we could. A couple slow-dancing to "Crown of Love" or me shouting "Working for the church while my family dies!" with a smile on my face seems to coincide with the messages of those songs, but people do it, and with little remorse at that. This is where I believe the majesty of Arcade Fire lies. The band's music offers no solutions for the countless problems their albums and the world offers, but they write melodies that allow people to release their anxieties in a public forum, where their problems seem that much more quaint. It is in this way that Funeral so well embodies adolescent angst, Neon Bible so well encompasses teenage rebellion, and The Suburbs so well characterizes middle-age depression.
The theme of The Suburbs is clear. Both Win Butler and Regine Chassagne have lived in the titular location and have stated that they wanted to capture the feeling of living there with their newest album. To this writer, the suburbs the band depicts are that of the 1950's, a time that seemed to house the perfect middle class, always had a seething undercurrent of fear, inadequacy and anger. The setting of the album concentrates on that undercurrent; that maligned convalescence that every person that lives there is in danger of being engulfed by, and, for many, are destined to remain.
At Madison Square Garden, every time the band was about to play a song from their newest, a single beige spotlight would bathe the band in sepia, symbolizing the similarly marginalized blandness the band was trying to depict. That blandness is expressed in the music as well as in the lyrics, of which I will get to in a moment. The old orchestral fanfares that were present on the band's last two albums are all but gone, and Arcade Fire have never sounded more like a rock and roll band. The title track is traditional two-step honky tonk, "Month of May" sounds like an artsy Ramones with a "Back in the USSR" beginning and "Suburban War" sounds like late-career Bruce Springsteen. What is not traditional for the band is the inclusion of synthesizers, which slowly but surely show up more prominently in the album's mix as the album progresses. The symbolic coldness of the instrument plays perfectly into the themes the band wishes to invoke, and they are used tastefully to continuously allow for comfortable listening.
Arcade Fire are also notably more reserved with their playing on The Suburbs. A Funeral-era Arcade Fire might have treated the chorus of "Ready to Start" as a cymbal-throttling affair. Instead, a florid ride cymbal pervades the song's background, sounding like an ominous wind blowing behind Win as he denies the love of someone who thinks otherwise.
The Suburbs also finds Arcade Fire with a different impression of "the kids". In Funeral, the band were those kids, and, in Neon Bible, the group worked with them to stage a revolt against the adults. But, in The Suburbs, the band are adults stuck in suburbia, and treat the kids with condescension for their naivety. "Let's go downtown and watch the modern kids," Win scoffs on "Rococo", later commenting "My God what is that horrible song they're singing?". His besiege continues on "Month of May", where he notes, "Some things are good and some things are right / But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight." "So much pain for someone so young," he sings with seeming compassion before continuing to scorn. "I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?" Where the kids met in the middle of the town in Funeral, and a more secluded place where no cars go in Neon Bible, the kids of The Suburbs meet in an empty room. Although the kids faced hardships throughout Arcade Fire's first two albums, there was no doubt they existed, but in the suburbs, there is a city with no children in it. With The Suburbs, the band (or the character that they are portraying) have disavowed the innocence of their childhood, and, as a result, the album is more dark than anything the band has released in the past.
I don't agree with the case made in "We Used to Wait", in which Win makes a tenuous argument against modern technology by wistfully reminiscing about when he used to wait for letters to arrive before communication became so immediate. However, the song has such a classic Arcade Fire melodic tunefulness, I can't help but sing along. In that song, the most telling line of The Suburb's intentions are expressed. "Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last." Oh, now I get it. Win and the group are so tepid towards the modern kids, because they feel that things are changing too quickly and they think they'll be lost in the shuffle, and, as a result, they take it out on the harbingers of that future.
And the two songs that most exemplify this sentiment are "The Sprawl"s. The first finds a young Win visiting The Sprawl on his bike. You can feel the contempt in his voice for the place as he explains the visit as "the loneliest moment of my life." A policeman, who Win depicts as "the last offender of The Sprawl" interrupts his insolent narrative and the song drops out. Cut to the next song and Regine's living there, admitting defeat as she laments the shopping malls that rise like "mountains beyond mountains". "Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small," she sings, not unlike "Heart of Glass" in the menace that underscores the song's glitzy facade. "That we can never get away from the sprawl."
It's tough to know how fans will react to The Suburbs. The album neither immediately smacks of a classic like Funeral nor latches to your subconscious like Neon Bible. Ultimately, The Suburbs resembles the 50's recordings that it is influenced by, opting to be an excellent collection of songs and little else. Some might see that as a disappointment, but, regardless, The Suburbs is essential listening, if only to hear a theme masterfully fleshed out by a band of professionals. At this rate, Arcade Fire may be growing up too fast, but that unsureness of the future that is prevalent in all their albums continues to confound us all in singing along, with inhibition all but left behind.