It's hard for me to express just how blindsided I was by Arcade Fire's first album. They were just starting to blow up at the time and I had just started to delve into music a little more out of the mainstream. Apart from Elliott Smith and Explosions in the Sky, most of my favourite artists at the time weren't worth mentioning. I generally listened only to the hit songs off of albums or the radio.
One night, a buddy of mine sent me an mp3 copy of Rebellion (Lies). From the first line of the song (Sleeping is just giving in/No matter what the time is), I felt like it was talking directly to me. There was something in the repetitive, melancholy piano chords and Win's expressive vocals that tugged at emotions that I didn't even know were there. And it just kept building. And building and building. It's strange that a song can feel so wistful and cathartic at the same time.
That, to me, sums up the power the Arcade Fire has. It's in their ability to reduce you to tears with piercing truths and lend you a hand at the same time. It's in their mirrored approach, their dual nature as the most epic, grandiosely anthemic band you've ever heard and as the friend you never knew, helping you out.
I went on a downloading flurry, each song I heard from Funeral leading me to download the next and the next until I had the full album and did it in order from beginning to end. And over again. Arcade Fire was the band that firmed up in my mind the concept of The Album as your guide.
Fast-forward to yesterday when I decided to sit and give my full attention over to the third LP from these mystical purveyors of emotional catharses.
The Suburbs opens with the title track, a song that rollicks along on a mid-ground tempo, bouncing up and down on the piano keys and a relentless beat, deceivingly bright and sunny at first, then rigid and wearily inevitable. A summary for the 'burbs if there ever was one.
Ready to Start seems to be about tackling on the societal norms, the conformity of a standard 9 to 5 life and knowing like everyone else, that these ‘norms’ are anything but normal. It’s about the pretense; the illusions people delude themselves with. It’s inevitable in today’s society that you have to play by these rules and this song, to me, is about preparing to tackle (and retackle) that without losing yourself in the process. When the rhythm shifts into a thudding pulse in the last minute or so, it’s like the narrator is psyching himself up to take it on.
Modern Man is on the same wavelength, as we’ve now entered full-out suburban life. The song lurches forward and back on a stumbling rhythm that echoes its central conceit - the idea of humans wading, half-awake, through the strange rules and processes of The System. It’s a zoomed out perspective on humanity and the strangeness of it all, knowing there’s something wrong with this picture.
Rococo is about looking at teenage rebellion from the suburban (or grown up) perspective, the attempts by teenagers nowadays to challenge the rules just slotting right into society’s norms more than they think (They seem wild but they are so tame/They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same). They talk shit they don’t know, posing and using style and fashion and modern culture as their mask, rather than building substance. The sliding sound of the mellotron (I think) combining with the precise string jabs builds a cacophony of sound that underlines the fluid repetition of Rococo[(coco)coco], almost like a jab, another word the kids keep using but don’t really understand (looked it up on Wikipedia, it’s an overly ornamental Baroque style, extravagant in its opulence).
This is followed by Empty Room, a track that seems pretty straightforward in its depiction of loneliness. It’s my least favourite track on the album because it’s a song without any dynamic changes, essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s short and works well where it’s placed, leading into City with no Children, a song where the narrator feels the weight of the society’s rules closing in on him, even as he’s fully aware of the way the system is rotting from within. The underground of the song is a metaphor for sticking to your principles, staying on the fringes while seeing society doom itself. But even in the underground, you are going nowhere (On a highway that was underground/There was no light that we could see/As we listened to the sound of the engine failing) and society will force you back in any case (Do you think your righteousness/Can pay the interest on your debt?). The walking tempo belies the darkness in the song, the weariness and resignation to one’s fate in society. The acknowledgement that the narrator is not winning the fight against conformity.
Half Light I gives a little respite – it’s a pretty breather of a song; a pause in the midst of this weariness to appreciate beauty in its simplicity even as you understand there’s darkness and complexity behind that façade. The metaphor of the last lines is just stunning (Our heads are just houses/Without enough windows/Youu say you hear human voices/But they only echo).
Half Light II (No Celebration) brings the themes of society’s collapse to the forefront as the narrator sees the decay; the death of society all around him in the rise of suburbia; our cities are washing away into places with no life, the natural beauty of the untamed buried beneath the brick replicas and carefully cultivated lawns. This song is to see the apocalypse as already begun.
Of all the songs on the album, the lyrics of Suburban War hit me the most. Reminiscent of Ocean of Noise in tone, this song is epic in its scope, literally seeing the struggle against conformity as a war. It’s about losing friends who fought against the conformity with you, to the process, as they grow up, move on, and resign themselves to their fates. There’s no lyrics on this album that hit me on an emotional level more than the two sections – Now the music divides us into tribes/You grew your hair/So I grew mine and later My old friends, I can remember when/You cut your hair/I never saw you again. In the latter half of the song, the narrator literally sees it as a war where he has to choose a way forward even as he sees it as unwinnable.
Month of May is a down and dirty rocker that propels forward like a rocket, unlike any other Arcade Fire song that’s come before it. It’s a new direction for the Arcade Fire, feeling like a call to arms.
Wasted Hours reflects back on the time when you were a kid, trapped by the boredom of suburbia and dreaming of a life outside of that, ending in the revelation by the narrator that several years later, we’re still those kids dreaming of a life outside of suburbia. It’s a minor Arcade Fire song but poignant all the same. This song is the lull before the final five-song punch, and my favourite sequence on the album.
That sequence begins with Deep Blue, an apocalyptic reverie on where we go from here, as technology takes over and becomes more advanced and as we become more robotic, losing our wilder aspects of human nature in the process. It’s another resignation to the idea that the war is already done and that it began in the suburbs.
We Used to Wait is summed up by the stanza: 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. It refers to the fact that the easiness of technology has led us to lose sight of the beauty of the small things. We’re spoiled with choice everywhere with the internet and access to information, media, and instant communication at the tip of a finger…but none of this is earned, not the way it used to be – we don’t gain the same emotional responses, we don’t relate on an emotional level from the way we communicate nowadays. We’ve lost something in that process, a part of our humanity in this ease. Towards the end of the song, the narrator makes a commitment, a small step forward and against technology and conformity by writing an unabashed love letter to his true love.
The sparsely dusty Sprawl I (Flatland) delves further into the coldness and lack of emotion of the replicant suburbs…it’s a powerful statement that the narrator, trying to find his own childhood house, can’t “read the number in the dark”. Suburbia constantly shifts and the houses rise and fall and new houses replace them…and as we move through so quickly, the identities of these places that we lived in change so often to the point where they lack an identity. Even here, as the narrator tries to navigate and find what his own identity is and where he comes from, he doesn’t even know where he comes from metaphorically (The last defender of the sprawl/Said ‘Well, where do you kids live?’/Well sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth/Been searching every corner of the earth).
The album’s last full track comes in the form of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Regine’s ethereal voice (never better than here) powered forward by a glittering ‘80s synth-stomper. This is the right track to leave us with as while it seems out of sequence with the album’s natural evolution, it’s a final ode, a plea against the sprawl of suburbia without feeling as demoralizing or depressing as the picture they painted up to Sprawl I (Flatland).
By the time I hit the final track, a short reprise of The Suburbs that brings things full-circle, I felt emotionally drained and wiped. Like I’d been on a rollercoaster of emotional truths. Owen Pallett’s key string counterpoints and the haunting pitch-warbling create an uncertain and warped reflective perspective that leaves the listener haunted.
I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said but obviously, The Suburbs has hit me in a way that few albums have…the only other album that comes to mind immediately on that level is Funeral. Is it as good as Funeral? On an individual track-by-track basis, no. But they’ve brought back the idea of a concept album all over again and more so than Funeral or Neon Bible, this is an album and not a series of singles. On a lyrical level, they’ve reached new heights and paired those lyrics with appropriate instrumentation and melodies. As a concept album, it is their most fully-realized and it has reaffirmed in my mind how powerful a concept album can be - how the tracks, sequenced properly (in this case, perfectly), can give you an emotional wallop. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As an album, it’s made me think about choices in my own life and it is the Arcade Fire album I can relate to the most. Funeral is breathtaking in its majesty, Neon Bible is a glittering but distant apocalyptic wonder. But The Suburbs, The Suburbs gets right into the midst of our lives and builds a sprawling and weary requiem to mankind.
Best Track: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Other Favourites: Modern Man, Rococo, Half Light I, Half Light II (No Celebration), Suburban War, Deep Blue, We Used to Wait
Previous Albums: Funeral (10/10) / Neon Bible (8/10)
arcade fire, the suburbs