Tuesday, September 14, 2010

(Not Quite) Rocking the Suburbs

Down is up and up is down and the world has gone completely topsy turvy when indie rock’s poster child, Arcade Fire and its latest album, The Suburbs triumphed over Eminem for the chart’s #1 spot. Released on August 3rd, The Suburbs sold 156,000 copies in the U.S., the first ever #1 for Merge Records. The record received very positive reviews although some of Arcade Fire’s loyal fan base was put off by the more ‘pop-ish’ and ‘radio friendly’ sound of the new album.

First thing’s first: The Suburbs is very very long. A massive 16 tracks, three of its songs spill out into two parts. The album progresses Arcade Fire, bringing it in a completely new direction. In Funeral, you got a band in its youth going through raw emotions like rejection and denial after an unexpected death. In Neon Bible, you left its youth and got to its young adult phase, expressing dread at being an outsider. The Suburbs takes the band to the middle-ages of mature acceptance. While it isn’t exactly fair to judge the suburbs based on their brilliant previous two albums since The Suburbs is a new sound, I found myself doing it regardless. The Suburbs is ripe with reasons to get angry and yet… it just doesn’t. While it would have been a little cliché to take the “criticize the suburbs” route, I would have had no qualms if they had lashed out at the restraining boundaries the suburbs are known for. Instead, The Suburbs gives us a mollified sound which has me yearning for Rebellion (Lies).

The Suburbs starts a little slow but gets good with Rococo which gives us some of the energized eeriness that they do so well. And it is a fun song with really good lyrics despite its silly chorus. From there we go to Empty Room which has a pulse but a weak one. City With No Children is the first time our beloved Arcade Fire comes back to us albeit in different clothes.

In City With No Children, our narrator talks about his childhood from a nostalgic and wistful point of view, saying: “I wish that I could have loved you then/Before our age was through.”
The next line talks about the change from “our age,” but in a passive way, sighing as if it is inevitable, saying that “a world war does with us/Whatever it will do.” You do get hints at his idyllic youth in the song, and you do get hints of anger at the change from childhood but the album feels so stuffed full with content that the anger does not burst upward and explode like a volcano, but rather spreads out like fog and weakens and dilutes the further it goes.

City with No Children is a metaphor for the progression of the band and in it Butler opens up about his insecurities of where fame has taken him and Arcade Fire.

In the spirit of his childhood and gloriously indie past, Butler sings ‘You never trust a millionaire/quoting the sermon on the mount” but then shockingly admits “I used to think I was not like them/but I’m beginning to have my doubts/My doubts about it.”

The Sermon on the Mount with its ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ seems hypocritical for a millionaire to quote from and indie, represented by the narrator’s youth, wisely points out the hypocritical faker. But Arcade Fire, now #1 on the charts, who before thought “I was not like them” could very well start having “doubts about ” whether or not it has become the millionaire.

The vast theme of The Suburbs threatens to swallow Arcade Fire whole but luckily this does not entirely come about. After the great City with No Children, the album continues its ‘bounce back’ with two very strong singles and my favorites of the album, Half Light 1 and Half Light 2.

In the shadows where “You can't recognize me/And I can't recognize you,” the band exclaims “we’re free” and that “the night tears us loose” without fear of being seen. Under partial lighting, Arcade Fire shows you its fears but reassures and convinces us in Half Light 2 that it still has what made the band so great. We finally get a bit of the chaos in Funeral, only now that Arcade Fire is filling up U2 sized stadiums, the looseness must be occasionally restrained. The new direction that Arcade Fire takes works in Half Light and it works intimately. Arcade Fire is too great a band not to let some brilliance seep through. And in a moment of vulnerability, under half light where it is safe to be yourself, we get the following:

Oh, this city's changed so much/Since I was a little child./Pray to god I won't live to see/The death of everything that's wild./Though we knew this day would come,/Still it took us by surprise./

If you told me an indie band was doing an album about the suburbs, I would have thought it would be a furious condemnation of that restrictively bland area. And there are flashes of anger about how it’s all sprawl, and there’s a war but it seems foggy as if it is from a memory somewhere seen through tired eyes. It is very hard to do unrestrained chaos in the suburbs unless one is attempting to tear at them from the insides. But for an indie band to place themselves inside the suburbs willingly, and to accept what they see, and to even equate themselves to the “ millionaire,” or the “modern kids” of the suburbs seems a bit of a sell-out.

In reality, I enjoyed The Suburbs a good deal. It is good and the singles City with No Children, Half Light I & II, We Used to Wait, Suburban War, and the two part Sprawl shine especially brightly. But perhaps my expectations were too high because on the whole, something is lacking. In Arcade Fire’s previous two albums we got songs that swelled and swelled until they exploded into euphoric choruses. That chaos found in Rebellion (Lies) or Wake Up or Neighborhood #2 is simply not present in The Suburbs. We get hints of it but they feel restrained and we only get them in ‘half light.’ The album is intimate and it tells its story of nostalgically returning home and seeing it changed with great detail. The Suburbs explains Arcade Fire’s fear of change and many songs that would do brilliantly on the radio. But when contrasted with the chaotic passion of their youth, one has to wonder, despite the extraordinary sales, whether this is the story its fan base wants to hear. Win Butler said that the album ‘is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs - it's a letter from the suburbs.’ Fans drunk with the chaotic passion of Arcade Fire’s earlier magic can with good reason be expected to wonder what the hell their favorite band thinks it is doing writing “from the suburbs.” And I pray alongside them and alongside Butler that the next album will prove that from Arcade Fire, we did not just witness “the death of everything wild.”

-Scott Goldstein


  1. great review as always Scottie! I have to say, I don't think this album is long enough. Listening to it now at work.

  2. My thoughts exactly on this album. I like it. I like it a lot. But I don't love it.