Review Summary: Cut the lights, crawl into your bed, play this and enjoy.
Not many albums are recorded as albums. A popular trend for the music industry dating back to the thirties is to include a popular single or two have the rest of the album consisting of filler tracks. There are plenty of artists out there who try to make albums; sometimes they just won’t have the talent to produce consistently good songs; other times, they do – the tracks just don’t flow together. Crafty musicianship and unifying themes running throughout The Suburbs ensure the record does what it was conceived to do: flow as if it was just one piece, as every album should.
The Suburbs is an interesting read for several reasons. The first theme is the band’s growing resentment for its own fan base. Particularly (if the album is anything to go by) anyone like me: your average suburban teenager who loved Funeral for its anthems and themes and felt betrayed by Neon Bible’s aimlessness. The other theme combines the nature of The Suburbs’ predecessors: Funeral’s brutal introspective gaze and Neon Bible’s extrospective assault. Win Butler takes us back to the land of the terrifying, scared, hauntingly-beautiful neighbourhoods he grew up in to see what life is like for the kids who live there now. Times have changed and the kids Win fought so much for on Funeral have become disillusioned with the world. Going to school; hanging out with friends; chasing the opposite gender... everything has become too repetitive for the teenagers. Despite being surrounded by people living in their neighbourhoods, the kids feel isolated from everything going on around them. They can see they’re just pawns for major corporations to sell things to. Everything, from trivial things like pouring out a glass or water to the more important issues like succeeding in life, has lost all meaning to them. To them, nothing matters in the suburbs anymore and they long to escape.
(the title track) begins with a happy-go-lucky piano melody, backed by an excited guitar player and energised drums. As well as being one of the great musical moments of the album, it’s also a lyrical high for the band, with Win launching into an attack on everyone listening to him in the first verse. ‘But by the time the first bombs fell we were already bored.’ Following the title track is Ready To Start
. It’s the perfect concert opener with the same anthem-like beat present throughout the whole song, designed to get you on your feet dancing.
The Suburbs may flow as a piece but that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the tracks are brilliant. In fact, the next four songs are quite boring. Win’s dropped his lyrical approach from Funeral, preferring to more bluntly state what’s going on. While this isn’t the best tactic for his song writing, it’s tolerable because of his brutal honesty. Win, however, is sadly not as good a storyteller as Peter Silberman or Jeff Mangum and thus not even his narration of life in the suburbs can save what comes next.
is definitely tries hard with its odd, shifting time signature and illustration of the kids’ growing apathy towards life, ‘Oh, I had a dream I was dreaming/And I feel I’m losing the feeling.’ It’s fair to say Rococo
is the album’s most hateful song with lines disregarding Arcade Fire fans themselves like, ‘let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words that they don’t understand,’ and, ‘They build it up/Just to burn it back down.’ It’s also fair to say it’s my most hated song on the album; I feel like there’s a drill placed between my ears whenever I hear it. Empty Room
and City With No Children
are also completely forgettable, with generic use of instruments and the lyric writing not particularly deep or meaningful in both.
Arcade Fire had already shot themselves in the foot, composing a protest album... that protested against their own fans. What more did they have to lose by splitting an act into two parts? Nothing, and the result was Half Light
(and later on, Sprawl
). Half Light I
is a pleasant track to listen to; it’s not outstanding but it is a song you would pay attention to if you played the album through-and-through. It also offers a line oddly reminiscent of the neighbourhoods saga, ‘We run through these streets/That we know so well/And the houses hide so much.’ The synthesiser fades and a steady drum beat slyly slides in before there’s an explosion of sound brought forward by an electric guitar and a synthesiser revitalised by energy, increased volume and added sound effects. You’re excused for thinking you’re listening to a reworking of Burning Bridges, Breaking Hearts
– you’ve really just been introduced to Half Light II (No Celebration)
. Some of the most powerful lyrics on the entire album are found here, such as, ‘Some people say/We’ve already lost,’ a reference to the kids’ fear of never being able to escape the suburbs and, ‘In this town where I was born/I now see through a dead man’s eyes,’ channelling the kids’ increasing nonchalance towards their own lives, brought on by constant repetition of their day-to-day lives; feelings of isolation and the obvious consumerism have been built around.
Following the Half Light
adventure is Suburban War
. It’s one of the best tracks on the album, with an incredibly sad guitar riff and great drumming. It’s a testament to how Arcade Fire’s song writing has matured in recent years, with the song completely changing direction at some point towards the end.
The next three tracks are guitar-driven for the most part. Month Of May
and Wasted Hours (A Life That We Can Live)
offer nothing special to the record except for the latter song (which is an extended version of what you’d find on the non-deluxe album) reiterating widespread hatred of the suburban lifestyle, ‘And all we see are kids in buses longing to be free.’ Deep Blue
enters with a nice acoustic guitar arrangement and the most depressing observation about the suburbs the listener has encountered yet, ‘tomorrow means nothing.’
We Used To Wait
, another one of the album’s highlights, begins with urgent keyboard playing and Win lamenting the dying practice of sending letters to a friend. With all of the technology used to communicate in the twenty-first century, there’s no need for letters anymore. Yet receiving a text does not offer Win, the kids or any of us the same joy the arrival of a letter would. ‘But what’s stranger still/Is how something so small/Can keep you alive.’ This apathy towards communication goes towards making the kids feel more and more isolated from each other.
Assuming you’re playing the album from start to finish, it’s up until this point that the band have been defiantly protesting for what they believe in. Is it so wrong to want to replace the vultures, so willing to hop on the band when it’s trendy to dislike them, with loyal fans? Is it wrong to hope the kids will be able to see the beauty of life again, that someday they’ll escape the suburbs once and for all? With the arrival of Sprawl
(another act split into two) marks the exit of the band’s passionate, fighting spark. It’s as if in this point in the Tales of The Suburbs, the band collectively had an epiphany and realised how futile it is to even protest. Sprawl I (Flatland)
opens with a cautious, lonely, uncertain guitar riff and a slow, solemn drum arrangement. The arrangement continues the whole way through, setting up a melancholy atmosphere and lending us lines Win ponders aloud, including, ‘”Well where do you kids live?”/I’ve been searching every corner of the earth.’ The lack of identity; the inability to find a place to call your own must be a horrifying thought to contemplate for Win, the man who’s watched his own neighbourhood get destroyed in front of his eyes. It also acts as a perfect introduction for Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
. It’s a number driven primarily by the use of synthesiser, something the band had never attempted before, and a beautiful vocal arrangement for Régine. These factors, combined with the most hard hitting lyrics on the album, firmly cement Sprawl II
as the best song on The Suburbs and probably the most important too, thematically. Régine starts off the song by retaliating against her own fans, ‘They heard me singing and they told me to stop.’ She echoes the fears of the kids her band has been trying to protect all this time, ‘Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/That we can never get away from the sprawl.’ She relays their exasperated acceptance of the fact that they’re just pawns for corporations, ‘The dead shopping malls rise/Like mountains beyond mountains/And there’s no end in sight.’ Arcade Fire’s understanding of life in the suburbs in this contemporary day and age is clear, ‘I need the darkness/Someone please cut the lights.’
If Win Butler saw irony in the kids feeling further away from everyone because they were able to communicate with each other easier, then surely he sees the irony in an album like The Suburbs having a deluxe edition. Maybe he even gets some sort of twisted delight from it. With the deluxe edition of the album comes two new tracks at the end, Culture War
and Speaking In Tongues
, which features David Byrne. Culture War
follows the same route The Suburbs went down, with Win pointing out how he urged the kids to grow up and feel those incredible emotions they were terrified of back in the Funeral era. ‘Now the kids are growing up so fast,’ they can’t even feel emotions anymore. It’s one of the best songs Arcade Fire has ever written. Speaking In Tongues
seems to be more of a standalone track, not really adding anything to the theme of The Suburbs. It’s not a weak track though, with either a really unique guitar tuning or some very talented production skills making it sound fresh, like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
In a world where sociopaths are romanticised or even idolised (see: Dexter; American Psycho; The Wire; The Sopranos), Arcade Fire have what it takes to go against the flow and they’re trying their hardest to let us know we don’t have to ‘move past the feeling,’ as the kids end up doing in the album closer, The Suburbs (Continued)
. It’s important to pay attention to the album’s lyrics; these are the Tales from the Suburbs, with every song acting as an instalment of the story. We get to watch the kids progress and, to quote Sprawl II
, ‘there’s no end in sight.’ The album is divided between its story and its music... but both parts ultimately offer the same message: We can still have fun; we can still feel emotions; we can still connect with other people. That’s something worth holding onto, even if it means escaping the suburbs and outrunning the sprawl. They haven’t given up hope, they’ve just realised it’s an individual battle, not one they can help win.
What about Arcade Fire itself? Did its backlash... against the backlash pay off? Well, something tells me they won’t have to worry about reclaiming fans or winning over new ones with this release. The Suburbs is the sort of album that helps you win over the world. Who knows what will happen when their fourth LP rolls around at some point in the distant future? If the subtext of the Sprawl
saga is anything to go by, Arcade Fire have some idea and they’ve readily accepted there’s nothing they can do about it. As the sayings go, history repeats itself and if you can’t beat them, join them.