Arcade Fire still knows their niche. Their third full-length album, “The Suburbs”, develops the recognition of conflict and pure emotional release into new thematic territory.
That’s saying a lot. “Funeral”, their debut, could have very easily put a nail in the coffin of their careers. It was not only widely accepted as one of the best albums of the last decade, but also had the most climactic theme possible: death and the need for communities (“neighborhood”) to restore something splintered in the human spirit. It was raw and richly sympathetic.
Their vigor took a different turn with their second record, “Neon Bible”: a bleak condemnation of dogma and institutionalism. Their sound took on a more gothic tone, using baroque instruments (ex. the organ) as an ironic counter to their more traditional purposes (“sacred” art). The group demonstrated that they could change sounds. While it was an excellent record, it was set back by a hostile tone that does not befit them. They succeed more when they offer struggles and questions than when they propose easy answers.
And this latest album is, in this way and others, a success. Its subject, suburban life and culture, is given a two-dimensional and largely autobiographical treatment.
On the one hand, they have obvious concerns about “the sprawl” and what it does to those who live in it. It stifles creativity (“they heard me singing and they told me to stop”) and seeks to alienate dissidents (“They’re screaming at me, ‘We don’t need your kind’”). And it’s successful: some of these songs are very lonely (“said your name in an empty room” on “Empty Room”). It wrecks potential (“I’ve been living in…a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison”).
The result? It creates more of its kind, the “modern” person, who is destructive (“they build up just to burn it back down”) and pretentious (see “Rococo”). And since suburbia seems to be on-growing these days, they leave us with a somewhat defeated question: “Can we ever get away from the sprawl?” Which, as they say in the song before (“Sprawl I”), means we can “[search] every corner of the earth” and not find our place. It’s one of the most dystopic songs I’ve ever heard.
Despite all of this, the music has an immediate nostalgia to it. Their opening song, “The Suburbs,” regrets “movin’ past the feeling”—that is, of a time before the boredom of the system, where there was ambition to exceed the social infrastructure by creating tender relationships. Even the “Wasted Hours,” wishing to be “free” but not achieving it, were not wasted; “wishing you were anywhere [else] turns into a life that we can live.”
What adds to the feeling of this duality is the organization of these tracks into couplets. The album is bookended by two renditions of “The Suburbs.” Within the body, there are other tracks that share a title (“Half Light,” “Sprawl”). Others simply share common themes; for instance, “Rococo” shares a lot of space with “Modern Man.” One of the effects, as with “Sprawl,” is that we get expressions from different times, and therefore sentiments.
What all of this amounts to is an aesthetic overhaul, one more evocative of passionate years as a young adult. Whereas their first two records were grainy and rallying, this record has a more glossy, calculated sound. Win Butler still provides a unique vocal quality, but his is much more bridled this go around. By the first track, this much should be evident by the way he moves within his range.
Several of their tracks are indebted to 80’s alternative pop. This is especially true of “Sprawl II,” which features breathy vocals from Regine Chassagne, jangling keyboards, and the very distinct addition of synth. It might just be the best track of the album. Other tracks take from the sound as well. “Empty Room” employs its fleeting pace and distorted overtones. “Half Light I” staggers a guitar riff to put behind synth. Others simply carry a youthful spiritedness.
Make no mistake, this record still carries a bit of the tonal uneasiness from the last record. After a somewhat light and listenable first track (which also manages to foreshadow later turbulence), they begin striking dissonant chords. “We Used to Wait” has a very hallowing effect. “Month of May” is four minutes of aggression. Everything is not allright. That’s why you’re listening to Arcade Fire.
If I could make any complaint about the record, it would be its length. To spread so much emotional force over sixteen tracks is exhausting.
But, just like our frustrating and stifling pasts, it’s something we will return to, to get exhausted all over again. Arcade Fire continues to convince us that life in the struggle has a colorful, frustrated beauty to it.