Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Words: Ryan Waring

To borrow a bit from Mad Men’s Don Draper, “Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.” No matter what you thought of their sophomore release Neon Bible, you wanted to hear another Funeral: grand melodies, sobering themes, and undeniable magic. Arcade Fire’s third full-length release The Suburbs recalls those sentimental childhood memories, reopening that old wound they exposed on their glorious debut. Don’t let that lead you to believe the Canadian group’s latest record is some ersatz Funeral littered with sensational verses to pull the wool over the eyes of what might now be indie rock’s largest fan base. Not entirely. The Suburbs is by no means regurgitation. As Arcade Fire has matured as a band, so too do the parts and sum of The Suburbs show signs of aging, for better or worse.

The narrative finds itself smack dab back in the neighborhood series from Funeral. Winn Butler’s recounting is less naïve; he’s grown up and gotten a little wiser, but still just as wont to offer his foreboding social critique as before. Whereas previously the power was out in the heart of man, the businessmen now drink our blood. Meet the new ‘hood, same as the old ‘hood.

But the disenchantment on The Suburbs feels credible. There’s no metamorphic “Wake Up” to give the delusional youth a sonic smack on the back of the head. Instead we’re left with the muttering and grumbling of “Rococo,” in which our narrator resignedly harangues the pretentious youth not so unlike him two records ago. Butler never sheds that bitter disposition, and any traces of optimism are feigned like a forced smile. Tracks like “Ready to Start,” despite that titular confidence, are smothered with insecurities that betray a little engine that can’t. The chorus captures the mood of the album, “If I was scared, I would/And if I was pure, you know I would/And if I was yours, but I’m not.” Worse more, “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (continued)” bookends capture the perpetuity of this disappointment. Not much remains but regret, and in these instances, Arcade Fire brilliantly capture the iconic ad man’s musing on nostalgia.

But these moments don’t comprise the entire album. over a full sixteen tracks, that sort of gut-wrenching pessimism shunts even the more self-loathing of its listeners. Moreover, Butler’s diatribes drone on like a codger’s longwinded “Back in My Day” speech towards the end of the album. I get it. You’re concerned about the youth. Thankfully, Arcade Fire’s reliably variable arrangements, and even unprecedented dabbles outside of their niche give the drone some much-needed volatility. Their gorgeous baroque pop is still the lynchpin of their sound, but The Suburbs’ arrangements are much more restrained than on their previous two albums. There’s a heavy emphasis on guitar to produce a dad-rock feel in tracks like “Wasted Hours” and “City With No Children” that complement the mid-life crisis lyrical motif, a trait best exhibited in the harmonic melody of “Modern Man.” “Suburban War” too pleasantly evokes the bounce of Association guitar licks from the 60’s.

The rest of the bulky track list offers a glimpse outside the group’s heretofore range. “Empty Room” begins with characteristic orchestral strings before quickly shifting to a distorted shoegaze ambience, while “Month of May” swiftly cranks the tempo with a boastful guitar riff Frank Black could have written. The most drastic addition is the synth-fueled thump of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” The track’s buzz has garnered apt comparisons to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” but is most prominent for deservedly showcasing the immensely talented Regine Chassagne, whom The Suburbs dubiously fetters.

This new range, along with their continued mastery of arrangements, gives The Suburbs the grandiosity Arcade Fire seek.  Butler’s commentaries are evocative, but in the end they’re oversaturated. And yet the musical pastiche Arcade Fire have composed continues to conjure up vivid memories throughout its length. And it makes sense that the music can do what the lyrics cannot. After all, nostalgia can’t really be put into words, it has to be felt.

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