Let's briefly extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that, when Arcade Fire decided to name their third record The Suburbs, they were in on the joke. For decades, the suburbs have been synonymous with refuge: a lack of danger, the reassurance of repetition, and a consistent kowtowing to the relentless homogeneity of the middle. They are where you go for the comfort of the familiar, and where the rewards are satisfying because they… read more »
Let's briefly extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that, when Arcade Fire decided to name their third record The Suburbs, they were in on the joke. For decades, the suburbs have been synonymous with refuge: a lack of danger, the reassurance of repetition, and a consistent kowtowing to the relentless homogeneity of the middle. They are where you go for the comfort of the familiar, and where the rewards are satisfying because they are predictable.
Which, if you were being unkind, are all things you could say about Arcade Fire. That, in the absence of real drama, they trump up pedestrian ideas with imposing crescendos in order to convey a disproportionate sense of urgency.
But that's if you're being unkind. The truth is that, even when they stumbled over their own ambition, Arcade Fire's chief hook — and, occasionally, Achilles' Heel — is that they were relentless in their mission to wrap their songs around issues far bigger than they were. That quest has an upside: By aiming for the universal over the parochial, Arcade Fire have become indie rock's last great hope of finally expanding outside the boho bar scene and into something like normal middle America — squeezing accordions and banging bass drums and blowing oboes and playing whatever it is the guy with the helmet plays as they parade past the carcasses of Interpol and Bloc Party onward to the victory of the packed arena.
And why shouldn't they? They have more ideas and ambition than both of those bands combined, and where their predecessors failed because they started big and tried to get bigger, Arcade Fire, cannily, are beginning to favor the opposite path, starting with an exclamation point and working their way back down to a period. Their first record was a meditation on Big Questions — death, loss, loneliness and betrayal — and their second, a meditation on the Medium ones — specifically, religion and identity. The Suburbs is even more controlled and focused, zeroing in on restless youth and stalled adults against a backdrop of vinyl siding and rows of mailboxes and the lonely twinkle of evening ice cream trucks.
It says something that a band who ended their last record looking for "a place where no cars go" have arrived at the exact opposite. There's even a car on the cover. The Suburbs finds the band moving from the possibility of the eternal to the vacancy and drudgery of the temporal. Gone — mostly — are the moments of Musical High Drama. On The Suburbs, the mezzo-fortes are meted out sparingly. Instead, the bulk of the record operates at a steady chug, Win Butler trading his pained skyward yowl for low, earthbound moan. "Suburban War" rolls along tumbleweed-slow, just a pirouetting electric guitar and hushed vocal. "City With No Children," the record's most melodically triumphant moment, doesn't even have a drum track — just finger-snaps and a far-off guitar part, always ready for the rush but fading out before it ever comes.
Accordingly, most of The Suburbs is about waiting. Butler may be "ready to start" on the grinding number of the same name, but a few minutes later he's standing in line, a guitar turning lazy curlicues behind him. In the mad rush of "Empty Room," he and wife Régine Chassagne announce, "My life is coming, but I don't know when," strings racing by them in the background. At certain points, he wanders around like a bedraggled Gulliver in a land of lunatics. When he encounters a pack of enlightened "modern kids," all they do is fake profundity by stammering the word "rococo" over and over, stormy cymbal crashes and a seasick string section underscoring the absurdity.
If past outings had a tendency to overstate their existential agony, what strikes most about The Suburbs is its protracted sense of sadness. It's remarkable to hear a band that focused so much of their early career on epiphany now be equally consumed by the lack thereof. The record goes on, but Butler and Chassagne never get any closer to the exit. In the absence of salvation, all they can do is obsess over the small details: flashlights on bike reflectors, kids in buses, house numbers obscured by shadow.
At just over an hour, The Suburbs is far too long, and a handful of songs in its second half are mealy and undercooked. But just as the record seems to be losing steam, a fascinating thing happens: It starts to double back on itself. Lyrics from its first half are repeated verbatim in act two; musical themes are briefly resurrected, familiar images flicker again across the screen. Songs start appearing in pairs: "Half Light I," "Half Light II." "Sprawl I," "Sprawl II." "Grab your mother's keys, we leave tonight," Butler sings in the ninth song, which is the exact same thing he sang in the first one. Gradually, the record starts to feel like a long locked groove, creating a horrifying sense of enclosure where escape is just an illusion, and where everything that happens is just a repeat of things that have happened before. In "City With No Children," Butler wheezes, "The summer that I broke my arm/ I waited for your letter," and then seven songs later, it's: "I used to write/ I used to write letters…/ It may seem strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive."
The instances of repetition start stacking up, quicker and quicker until the whole record finally crests in the deceptively euphoric "Sprawl II," where Chassagne, over zigzagging synths, rides her bike to the town's highest point and discovers, "Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ and there's no end in sight." In the album's closing moments, we're left — quite literally — where we began, with a reprise of the opening number where Butler sings "If I could have it back, all the time we wasted/ I'd only waste it again."
As big moments go, it's hardly in league with "Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up," but it sums up the record's overarching focus on the Big Empty. "In my dream I was almost there," Butler sings, "Then they pulled me aside and said you're going nowhere." For the characters he's created, everything ends in a cul de sac. So they go the only place they can: back in the car for one last spin through endless winding streets, watching the sun set on the suburbs once again.