Arcade Fire – Suburbs (2010, Merge Records)
To try and define the Arcade Fire’s sound is an impossible task. When I first heard “Wake Up” in Brent Hamric’s car in the spring of 2004 I immediately thought of The Flaming Lips. One track later and that was changed. Three albums later and they are still too eclectic to pin down. A lot of music critics wait like vultures for the bands they love or others love to slip up, so that they can pounce and claim that the grandeur that once was is lost. Arcade Fire seems to dare them to try it, by dropping the dark gloom of Neon Bible and adopting a more pop-folk vibe. There’s some familiar sounds to bring you back in, but then suddenly things change up and we hear some arrangements and instruments that show the band is still testing its limits.
It seemed a natural fit for Arcade Fire to score a film, and they did so last fall for Richard Kelly on The Box. While the music there resembled Bernard Hermann more than any of their typical music, they still have a cinematic sound in this latest album. It’s a very West Coast, bouncier collection of songs. Every few tracks there’s that dark underscoring that comes through, but for the most part this is a pop-ier album, very much music you could dance to. Like all their work, the cinematic qualities come from the story being told in the lyrics. Each album has felt like a dystopian novel, touching on themes of the end of our civilization. It sounds like heavy material to be working with, but they manage to make tracks that you tap your foot to. The voices in these song stories are typically disaffected twenty-somethings reflecting on the desolation around them.
The opening track “The Suburbs”, has a bouncy piano underscoring the song which came as quite a jolt when I started the album. For the first time on their albums, I find lead singer Win Butler sounding like a spiritual successor to Neil Young. And this opening song, like a couple others, have a folk-rock element to them. “Ready to Start” is the track you expect to hear on an Arcade Fire album, there’s pounding drums and alt-pop guitar riff. References are made in the lyrics to “the kids”, a recurring noun in all their albums, that seems to represent youth in general who has an awareness above the adults. “Modern Man” is back in Neil Young country, but also made me think of some of The Talking Heads’ work in the early 1980s and is a song I would not have guessed was an Arcade Fire song if I didn’t already know it. “Rococo” seems to be a mix of expected elements and this new West Coast folk sound being incorporated now. “The kids” are back again, a force of apathetic destruction, constructing massive pillars of junk to burn down. “Empty Room” begins with some wonderfully light strings and then turns into a classic right out of the standard playbook, with some very Kate Bush like vocals led by Chassagne Butler. “City With No Children” evokes thoughts of *gasp* Bruce Springsteen, a comparison I never thought I would make. There’s a strong of sense of small town nostalgia woven through the song and even the arrangement feels like a track off Thunder Road.
“Half Light I” and Half Light II” continue the nostalgia trip, and I have a feeling the band made this album as homage to their own youths growing up in the 1980s and the music that filled their lives during that time. It is a good explanation for how the album is able to evoke memories of so many different artists of that time, yet is still able to not go off the rails. “Suburban War” comes back to Springsteen but not as heavily, its much more Arcade Fire gloomy. “Month of May” is yet another splash of ice cold water as the band is backed by the unceasing guitar of what could easily be a Ramones song and more mentions of “the kids” as a defiant force of purity. “Wasted Hours” is back to folk pop guitars and continues the themes of adolescents tooling around the desolate wastes of Southwestern small towns and looking back on this time as something to be missed. “Deep Blue” is one of the few tracks where Win stands alone, his voice turned into an echo-y voice mourning the past, but also makes use of that same bouncy piano rhythm from the first track. “We Used to Wait For It” continues on from “Deep Blue”, now talking about the time spent by youth in anticipation of the future, only to look back on their youth as adults and want to somehow return to it. “Sprawl I (Flatland)” is Win Butler returning to his childhood home, singing out from open landscape and becoming lost looking for it. This is a track so full of narrative elements, it makes you want the band to compose an opera. And where that songs leaves us mournful, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond) is a chorus of angels beyond the hills that surround this small town lifting our protagonist up and away. The album wraps up with a short and haunting track, reprising the opening song, where Win states that if he could have the time back he wasted as a child, he’d simply waste it again.
Arcade Fire proves that they are about revisiting the same ideas thematically, but constantly experimenting with their sound. This by far the most listener friendly album they have released and every track could easily find a place in the radio rotation. They take a lot of chances and flirt with mainstream sounds, only insomuch as they hearken back to brothers Win and Reg Butler’s youth in the suburbs outside of Houston. For all its slightly dark atmosphere at times, there’s a revelry in being a kid without responsibilities or being forced mete out time as a valuable commodity. A great album from one of the best bands of the 21st century.