The suburbs – and what they represent – have always been fair game for rock stars. All sorts of images of rebellion and tortured soul histrionics can be conjured up when on the subject of the ‘American Dream’ of white picket fences, freshly cut lawns and an easy – but soulless – existence. Rock stars love to show off just how edgy and subversive they are by relating the ‘burbs to soul-draining conformity and suppression. Not many, though, have the bravery or ability to use the suburbs as a nostalgic metaphor for past lives, loves and fears for the future.
Entitled The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s third album simmers and broods over the subject of a paradise lost – an American Dream idyll that has been eroded by time and conflicting responsibilities. Like their previous albums, it’s full of grand ideas and deep, powerful emotions. Where it differs is that these grand statements are no longer as overstated and overblown as they were on Neon Bible, and are much more controlled and deliberate than on their debut Funeral. The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s most elegant and emphatic record, and is as near to a modern masterpiece as anything released in recent memory.
Setting the lyrical scene early, album opener ‘The Suburbs’ pairs happy childhood memories with imagery of man-made war destroying the planet, with front-man Win Butler hopeful of a child ‘… to hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before all this damage done’. All this is laid over a welcoming, almost jovial bar-room piano melody and a lush orchestral arrangement.
In stark contrast, ‘Ready To Start’ sounds more like an Interpol song – the shredded, layered guitars and brooding rhythm complementing the cynical and weary lyrics: “The businessmen are drinking my blood / Like the kids in art-school said they would… All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears new clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / ‘Cus it’s better than being alone”.
‘City With No Children’ continues the theme of dissatisfaction with modern life and the urban sprawl. Set over an almost glam rock riff, Win bemoans the absence of life and vitality in our vast concrete jungles: “I feel like I’ve been living in / A city with no children in it / A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison”.
The issue of getting older and losing touch with old friends – and your own identity – is dealt with poignantly in the albums centrepiece ‘Suburban War’. Adopting a Springsteen-esque croon over the gentle guitars, Win bemoans the loss of human interaction in the modern world: “The cities we live in could be distant stars”. The song then swells into a massive military tattoo, with Win despairing: “Oh my old friends / They don’t know me now / Oh my old friends / Are staring through me now”.
This theme of dissatisfaction with the cold and distant modern world is continued in ‘We Used To Wait’, the act of writing and receiving letters used as a simple metaphor representing a rich and meaningful existence: “It seems strange / How we used to wait for letters to arrive / But what’s stranger still / Is how something so small can keep you alive”.
If at first the lyrical content sounds a bit like a band going through a mid-life crisis, the progressive musical experimentation will remind you that The Suburbs is the sound of a forward thinking band in their creative prime. ‘Rococo’, for example, jumps out of the speakers confidently and is full of heavy baroque tones. ‘Half Light II (No Celebration)’ somehow manages to sound relevant and vital even though it sounds like U2 covering Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Elsewhere, ‘Month Of May’ shows that although they may be getting a bit world-weary and cynical, the ‘Fire can still churn out a top notch rock song.
The Suburbs is that very rare kind of album – one that you can immediately relate to but still hear something different every time you listen. Its 16 songs and 63mins running time demands attention – which is always richly rewarded.
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