CD review: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Opener “The Suburbs” sets the thematic tone with an ethereal, mid-tempo shuffle. “Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling,” Win Butler laments, hinting at growing older and the nostalgia of his youthful ideals. This is no declaration of triumphant hope; Butler is a man peering down the barrel of his age, fearful of what he's left behind and of what's to come.


“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” finds Arcade Fire venturing into new territories with a bouncy beat, synth lines, and co-fronter Régine Chassagne’s airy falsetto, all blended to make a club-friendly number playfully reminiscent of the Knife’s “Heartbeats. The dark, stutter-stop palm mute of "Modern Man" nimbly marches along draped in Butler’s lyrical veneer of suspect and unease at being a modern man.


This is where an overall disconnect between lyrical themes and the feel of the instrumental compositions grows significantly apparent. Sad lyrics don't have to be accompanied by melancholy music, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t initially come off as odd in this particular context.


But that’s the idea; discomfort, unease, heart-wrenching something-lost nostalgia in a manufactured environment so cheery, so do-no-wrong, so inhumanly perfect as the suburbs. It’s political with no political intentions. It’s dread without woe-is-me showboating. It’s overpoweringly honest. In an industry riddled with rampant disingenuousness and delusional self-obsession, it’s deeply reassuring to hear a man and his musical comrades fervently plumb the depths of themselves to create something as captivatingly true-to-self and beautiful as The Suburbs.


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The days of sweeping compositions, dramatic ebb and flow, and emotional grandstanding are apparently behind the Arcade Fire. There are no finish line-crossing epics like “Wake Up” or “Keep the Car Running” on the Canadian ensemble's third album, The Suburbs, and the immediate knee jerk reaction of disappointment upon first and second and even third listens makes it hard to stomach the absence.

But The Suburbs is an album that takes work — some sloshing around in the musical mouth, if you will — in order to really pick up on the subtleties and themes unfolding from song to song. Once you do the work, you discover musings on fear and loathing in the suburbs (who knew?!) that are equal parts beautifully bitter and scathingly frustrated, misplaced feelings of dread and inherent human sadness set amidst a sonic environment that's clean, sprawling and as deceptively cheery as the suburbs.

The Suburbs' grandest overall achievement is its lack of grandiosity.  Arcade Fire show they’re reached a juncture where they don’t need to grab you outright with compositional pomp and drama.  The impatient kid in me wants to say it sucks, it’s boring, it's not worth the time or effort; the adult respects such mature self-realization and emotional growth on Arcade Fire’s part.

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