Arcade Fire: “The Suburbs”
Rock’s greatest evangelists this side of St. Bono, Arcade Fire have been pitching their own feverish big-tent revival for the better part of the last decade. They’re not asking you to come to Jesus, exactly, though there’s no denying the religious fervor that runs through their work. Theirs is a prophetic calling, a calling to sound the alarm and bid listeners to wake up– from apathy, from spiritual and moral lethargy, from a paralyzing sense of “cool.” It’s a call they sound to everyone: Arcade Fire is the direct antithesis to the sense of exclusivity and ambivalence that characterizes the hipster scene. Everyone is asked to participate in their revolution, and one senses that they just won’t quit until the whole world has been brought on board. Given how few bands believe, with this much conviction, that rock and roll can Mean Something, the comparisons to U2 are well-deserved; the charges that they take themselves a little too seriously, not too difficult to understand.
Given the scope of their mission, the breadth of their empathy, it isn’t surprising that they often paint in broad strokes. Their themes are universal, their songs anthems, their emotional palette broad and relatable. Everything is oversized, like they’re stage actors and everyone else in indie rock are stuck on the small screen. For crying out loud, their first album was called Funeral and their second was an LP-length exploration of the toxic intersection of religion, politics, and commerce. And their third album, The Suburbs, blows up the scale even more. Theirs is a sound based on the idea that music itself can be meaningful, even apart from the words, and they’ve built their reputation on stadium-swelling overhaul of U2 by way of Springsteen. Those are familiar sounds, and they touch something inside of us. On the new album, the band introduces some new colors: A touch of 50s doo-wop, Tom Petty’s heartland rock, giddy synth pop, a Sinatra-ish coda. These sounds are signifiers; they take us to certain places in our cultural past, and they immediately communicate to us something of Arcade Fire’s intentions.
If it sounds big, sweeping, sprawling– well, this is Arcade Fire. Of course it is. Still, this is the band’s most ambitious recording yet; on the second song Win Butler sings that he’s “Ready to Start,” and you get the feeling that this is indeed the genesis of a whole new era for the band, one in which even the familiar reveals itself to be far more complex than we previously imagined. Specifically, they’re revisiting the neighborhood they introduced us to on Funeral— only this time, the tunnels that provided escape are a sprawl that cultivates a modern, middle-aged malaise. This isn’t an album about grief and loss, but about something colder, more insidious. It’s about lack of feeling– about the loss of passion, of fervor, of intimacy. It’s about cultural norms that dehumanize us without us knowing. These are broad themes and big ideas, but even when they aren’t subtle, Arcade Fire is always complex.
And so the album is a complicated set of interlocking pieces that mirrors the suburban sprawl Butler sings about. Lyrical motifs and phrases recur in different songs, sometimes in totally different contexts, different puzzle pieces that the band effortlessly move around to fit their vision. The jaunty saloon piano that propels the title track disappears from the song when it is reprised at the album’s end, this time as a strings-and-voice, Wee Small Hours epilogue that uses the same words as at the album’s start, but somehow seems to carry an entirely new, complementary meaning. The songs in between pair off to reveal dichotomies but also connections, and not just in the two-song suites “Half Life” and “Sprawl” but throughout: Sometimes Butler’s lyrics find him returning to the perspective of the kids who raced through Funeral‘s tunnels, but in the very next song he’s singing from the perspective of the parents, weighed down by a cultural numbness, the ravages of time and age, the anxieties of the Neon Bible era.
The music is similarly expansive, similarly interconnected, and as much a part of the story as the lyrics are. Again, they seem to come in pairs: The resignation of the title track and its easy-going gait give way to the more determined, punkish rush of “Ready to Start,” just as the quiet desperation of “Wasted Hours” comes bundled with the raging aggression of “Month of May,” the band’s leanest rocker yet. Make no mistake that what they’re doing here is masterful, and they know it. They practically flaunt their growth as a band, the depth of their vision and the grace in the execution, when they pair a song like “Modern Man”– its spare production standing in stark contrast to the bombast of Neon Bible, just naked emotion with little adornment– with the lavish experimentation of “Rococo.” The interplay of rich strings and guitar tones on “Empty Room” revel in sound, but even moments like this never distract from the importance of song, something emphasized by the song’s quick fade into the ringing guitar rock of “City with No Children”– Hold Steady by way of Tom Petty, and the closest thing here to a “Wake Up”-style anthem.
I don’t want to say much else about where this story goes, or what conclusions the band reaches; suffice to say that their latest manifesto is a painfully precise excavation of a soul that has been worn down by a most curious modern malaise; that it is neither a political screed nor a religious polemic, yet its themes of affluence and isolation, of sleeping morals and cultural conformity, speak in a very specific way to both the times in which we live and more broadly to the condition of being human, making it political in the most meaningful way and spiritual in the most concrete. What I will say is that, by the time you reach “Sprawl,” the album’s mastery becomes impossible to deny. It’s another two-parter, this one explicitly so; the twin movements couldn’t be more different, and couldn’t compliment each other more. The first half is a bare-bones lamentation from Win at his most desperate and downtrodden. It’s the sound of a man who’s realized he’s been drowning his soul. It’s also a wake-up call; part two is sung by wife Regine, and it’s every bit as exhilarating and cathartic as “Keep the Car Running” or “No Cars Go.” I’m not going to spoil the specifics of its call to arms, but it sounds pretty perfect to me: It’s the sound of the soul finally stirring.