Arcade Fire presents The Suburbs
‘This is an age of anxiety for the reason of the electric implosion that compels commitment and participation quite regardless of any point of view.
The partial and specialized character of the viewpoint, however noble, will not serve at all in the electric age.”
Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980), from Understanding Media 1964.
LP (x2 Gatefold) / CD / Download
Track list –
1. The Suburbs (5:14)
2. Ready To Start (4:15)
3. Modern Man (4:39)
4. Rococo (3:56)
1. Empty Room (2:51)
2. City With No Children (3:11)
3. Half Light I (4:13)
4. Half Light II – No Celebration (4:25)
1. Suburban War (4:45)
2. Month Of May (3:50)
3. Wasted Hours (3:20)
4. Deep Blue (4:28)
1. We Used To Wait (5:01)
2. Sprawl I – Flatland (2:54)
3. Sprawl II – Mountains Beyond Mountains (5:25)
4. The Suburbs – Continued (1:27)
William Butler – Bass, guitar, synthesiser.
Win Butler – Bass, guitar, keyboards, piano, synthesiser, violin and vocals.
Régine Chassagne – Accordion, drums, keyboards, piano and vocals.
Jeremy Gara – Drums, guitar and keyboards.
Tim Kingsbury – Bass, guitar and keyboards.
Sarah Neufeld – Fiddle, keyboards and backing vocals.
Richard Reed Parry – Accordion, celesta, double bass, organ, piano and synths.
Additional personal –
Sarah Neufeld, Owen Pallett, Richard Reed Parry and Marika Anthony Shaw, Clarice Jensen, Nadia Sirota, Yuki Numata, Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Rob Moose – Strings.
Colin Stetson – Saxophones (tracks 9, 13 & 15).
Pietro Amato – French horn (tracks 13 & 15).
Markus Dravs – Co-production with Arcade Fire.
Mark Lawson – Recording.
Craig Silvey – Mixing.
Nick Launay – Additional mixing (tracks 2, 4 & 15).
Marcus Paquin, Don Murnaghan and Noah Goldstein – Additional recording.
Brian Thorn – Assistant (Magic Shop).
Brad Bell – Assistant (Public Hi-Fi).
Adam Greenspan – Assistant.
Caroline Robert – artwork design.
Vincent Morisset – art direction.
Gabriel Jones – photography (assisted by Joey Matthews & Stephane Fiore).
Canada’s domineering neighbours, the US, have already had countless writers and bands farm, analyse and ravish mountains of material out of the mundanely starched lifestyles and mental imprisonment of the homogenous lined suburbs. Now over the boarder, the Arcade Fire choose a relevant epoch to paint their very own conceptual narrative of an upbringing – both Win and his brother William were brought up in Houston – socially cocooned amidst the sprawling expanse of estates, where blue collar workers done good and aspiring lower middle classes conspire to achieve some stature in their jobs. They further lyrically describe an almost dystopian landscape, full of kids and teens just hanging around, locked in a cycle of boredom and underachieving, though they also point a finger at modern life, and the cold world we’ve created.
Of course Win Butler wouldn’t necessarily agree with the music critics reading or search for meaning on this their third album, yet there’s no denying that in the 16 tracks on display, they touch on more then enough serious subject matter to warrant a suitable thesis sized review.
Whether they prefer the listeners to take in this grand opus free of rhetoric or reams of baggage, like a blank sheet, is commendable, unfortunately in today’s multi-senses overload of sound bite and comment, it’s impossible to not in some way be swayed by the general consensus.
Already a whole host of publications, blogs and their individual critics have lavished enough praise upon this ambitious tome, what can one more humble reviewer possibly add?
Well I hope to at least dig up some observations and cast aspirations not yet voiced, and of course to give you the reader a more insightful overhaul of the entire narrative.
My first thoughts were very much at odds with this review, finding the first few listen throughs underwhelming, no ascending triumphant highs or big old choruses of yore, instead a rather dry and dark manifestation of the band emerged.
But then it finally clicked, I get it, I really get it! They’re going against the grain, producing an album that indolently grows in stature and foresight over not just weeks, months or years, but decades.
You can’t really compare this album to either Funeral or Neon Bible, it’s just different, more morose, cynical in parts, and full of self-delusion. Win and his chums even take a few snipes at certain sections of their audience, almost deriding them for not being willing to keep up with the bands transformation – not a popular move. Overall there is a move towards a more subtle and mature sound, resigned and fatalistic, that sometimes betrays moments of innocence and teenage bouts of sulking, all packaged together to assume a general purview in theme, which results in a loose concept motif familiar to all their work.
Musically strong and stripped down with every bar being meticulously thought over, there isn’t a single beat, line, riff or string out of place. The tight backing completely furnishes the quality of the slow building melodies and driving emotive ethereal undertones.
Using 80s collage rock, the odd favourable Moroder and Vangelis inspired synthesised sweeps, plus the general ambience and recounting, shows hints of Neil Young’s storytelling tradition – Win has himself describes the sound as a cross between Young and Depeche Mode, though I can’t myself hear the Mode.
Win and Régine both work off each other, from trembling emotive pleas to tearful inducing laments of efficacious prose, jumping at times into abandoned sorrowful joy.
It is difficult to encompass the whole album into just a few paragraphs, so I’ve dissected the albums tracks below, for a more detailed rummage around the subject matter.
The Suburbs – We’ve waited a long time, the anticipation crushing us, yet the Arcade Fire chose to ease us in gradually, like in the manner of a Matisse painting, the shroud slowly lifted over the course of five minutes.
Rolling, almost jaunty, the accompaniment winds along a narrated chuggering beat, full of lightly acute warmth and swaying lush layers.
A honky-tonk piano plays a Warren Zevon-esque melody, redolent in part with some of Bowie’s more glittering Weimar cabaret style leanings, and highly infectious.
Win plans to breakout of the titled suburbs as some nightmarish impending war continues around them. Win plays with the thoughts of a revolution conceived in a bedroom, such as “You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting a suburban war, your part of town against mine”.
Our troubadour goes onto reminisce about relenting childhood memories, evoking an end of the era fond sentiment, “When all of the walls that they built in the 70s finally fall, and all of the houses they built in the 70s finally fall”.
The recurring theme of innocence is adhered to as our narrator takes stock and worries for a future without it, “So you can understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young?, I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done”.
Ready To Start – As the last strains of the opening account gently and listlessly fade out, the Broken Social Scene evoking pronounced snare introduction turns into a 80s collage rock anthem, aided by those US high school drama soundtracks that throw in the odd cascading pre-set Casio keyboard twinkles to add an almost pastiche like thrill.
Darker pulsating bursts of disco oscillations bombard the Breakfast Club mood, giving this almost childlike waltzing rocker a slightly edgier sound.
The lyrics speak of the kids again, misunderstood, yet still resigned to follow the same cycle of resentment and despair – “All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes, but they bow down to him anyway”, perhaps because “…it’s better then being alone”.
Win alludes to some loss of purity, and that old gem innocence: “If I was scared I would, and if I was pure you know I would”, sang in a low crooning resonant style of fateful acquiescence.
Modern Man – Continuing to grab even more of those rich-pickings from the 80s, our group pile into a staccato drum break and Joe Jackson snap guitar and bass accompaniment. A constant stuttering electric guitar persists, accentuating the snide upturn at the end of each bar, as Win repeats the mantra “I’m a modern man”, in a beaten man fashion, sarcastically remonstrating against the modern world, as this adverb is added to the end of each catalogued mundane event in a 24-hour period.
One of the most poignant lines, “Maybe when you’re older you will understand, why you don’t feel right, why you can’t sleep at night”, reinforces the sentiment rather well, echoing in some way their fellow Canadian’s Wolf Parade’s ‘I’m Not In Love With The Modern World’, both songs emotionally challenge the onslaught and disillusionment in the world.
A swelling build towards a string led crescendo is subdued, something that an Arcade Fire of old may have been tempted to launch off into a more positive uplifting chorus, thankfully they stick to their guns.
Rococo – A futuristic apt Baroque inspired whirling brooding introduction brings in the final song on side one, a song whose title insinuates a relationship to the 18th century style of decadent and superficial arts and crafts, beloved especially by the aristocratic and lucky privileged few of France, before the revolution swiftly changed the status quo.
This more attuned ‘Black Mirror’ vibe is a fairytale turned sour, the initial swirls and wispy synthesised soundscape slowly suffocating until it blasts out into a middle eight section of relief.
Metaphorically jumbling a snapshot of the feral like kids on the street with a decorative style from a bygone era, Win sings a chanting almost cooing “Rococo, rococo, rococo” mantra like he’s taming a cat over an evermore threatening menacing beat- an oddly beguiling treat and highlight.
Empty Room – The intro kicks in with some sped-up Viennese ensemble waltz, bounding along with childlike exuberance, Régine taking on her first lead, though Win shadows. Her soulfully wide-eyed vocals stride over a gamely Meatloaf like rock’n’roll blistering attack, whilst the string section power through an invigorating charge.
Enraptured ephemeral pronounced lyrics speak of some heartening mysterious loss, Régine prompted into actions caused by this aloof presence – “Said your name in ana empty room, something I would never do”, though repeating the mantra that’s better off now – “When I’m with myself, I can be myself”, going on to claim “And my life is coming but I don’t know when”.
The string ensemble play out a final pulchritude of magical stirring reverence, the lyrics sung out in French.
City Without Children – Fading in from the previous track, this Bruce Springsteen-esque mid-tempo narration rumbles over a subtle viscerally groove, reminiscent off Murmur era REM.
Win takes back the reigns, with Régine faithfully covering the backing vocals, over a methodical beating drum, distant lead guitar and some heavenly sounds.
More resigned fables and regret ensue, “I wish that I could have loved you then, before our age was through and before a world war does with us whatever it will do”, a self-prophesising fatalistic outcome seems imminent.
Win paints a picture of a fractured society, with those who can afford it hiding behind closed doors, surrounded by security, separating themselves from the lawlessness and deprivation. He worries at one point that he maybe turning into one of these himself as sighs in resignation “A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside a private prison”, the streets are empty of children, there all inside hooked up to the mains, “I feel like I’ve been living in a city without no children in it”.
Half Lights I – Wistfully charming serene OMD like overtures begin the first part of a two-part minor opuscule within the main expansive masterpiece of this album.
Chanteuse Régine wonderfully and dreamily swoons over a big bass drum and acoustic lifting guitar, majestically sweeping along on a bed of ether, with Win adding a low baritone moan to proceedings.
She recounts tales of running free through the shadows, stolen moments caught between the artificial light and onset of dawn, an ambrosial drifting swan song to lost youth.
Half Lights II (No Celebration) – The second act of Half Lights begins where the last section left off, bemoaning a loose tale of some looming disaster.
With San Francisco gone, the markets crashed and their world tumbling around them, Win and co. head for the open road and go back to their old hometown to seek solace or understanding.
Musically this is Joy Division and Neuman’s Tubeway Army scoring the soundtrack to Blade Runner, in a dystopian journey through a battered landscape, yet there is still something to be salvaged, as they take on an eerily reminiscent driving and vocal rendition of the Clash.
Win even manages to shout out an air punching echoing wooh! at one point barracking the sanitation and wearing down of the rebel and anything that upsets the status quo “Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild”.
Month Of May – The tempo is upped with this Meatloaf redolent rocker, that’s part punk part reserved.
Robust ballsy guitars with bouncing backbeat drums and some synthesised stirring ambient oscillations are used as a launch pad for Win to kick-off some diatribe about the creation of this album – “Gonna make a record in the month of May”, explaining their circumstances, “And just when I knew what I wanted to say, a violent wind blew the wires away, we were shocked in the suburbs”.
In didactic fashion Win stutters “2009, 2010 wanna make a record how I felt then”, adding some sort of mythology to the record, whilst bemoaning about the process, sounding bitter and resentful at the perceived pressure brought to bare on producing another requiem.
Wasted Hours – The endlessly stretched out expanse of suburban homes and the lives led behind them are adhered to in this forlorn and contemplative pastoral number.
Lines echo the strong driving references as well as endured swoon observations on town planning – “First they built the road, then they built the town”, these roads being amble comfort to wile away time on “..that’s why we’re still driving around and around”, perhaps going nowhere.
The best line is saved until almost last, “What was that line you said? Something about how our time it owns us now”, a truthful statement if ever I heard one.
Deep Blue – Russian chess supermo Garry Kasparov tyrannical battle against the supercomputer of the songs title draws in more metaphorical meanings about technology and, perhaps, the loss of human interaction. Famously Kasparov had fought, and defeated, a computer in 1989, called Deep Thought, before being challenged both in 1996 and 1997 by IBM and their souped-up modified HAL like machine, Deep Blue. The last series of games ended in defeat for humanities saviour, though Kasparov always maintained that the machine had cheated, using human intervention, which was in contravention to the rules. A rematch was called but IBM declined, an action believed by Kasparov to hide the fact that they’d cheated him, though he would go on years later to face two more computers in a face-off, one that could calculate 3 million moves a second.
Used as a general reference in this rather morose and sadly strummed pinning lament, Win once again ties in events with the suburbs “Are you through pretending we saw the signs in the suburbs?”
Covering a familiar path to Brain Wilson’s ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ sentiment, our forlorn protagonist implores us to “Put the laptop down for a while” for our own sake, disconsolate that “We watched the end of a century, compressed on a tiny screen”.
We Used To Wait – A resonating piano beckons and a solitary snare beckon us in, a bass drum pulsing underneath as those Vengalis-esque bubbling synths lay down a misty smoke machine like atmosphere. Shades of Simple Minds and early U2 come into play as the backing spreads out into a subdued anthem, with a quivering strident lead guitar cutting through on the builds and near glorious choruses.
This is a eulogy to the lost art of communicating, “I used to write, I used to write letters, I used to sign my name”. More mournful remorse is alluded to, “By the time we met, the times had already changed, so I never wrote a letter”.
Time bankrupt with too many distractions, everything edified in short sound bite and throwaway commentary, our hearts-on-their-sleeves Canadians doe-eyed, sigh and agonize, not being able to quite summarise what the actual problem is, yet they know there is something missing.
They even make elusive comments about the impatience of their own audience, or any the general lack of attention span and willingness to accept change, the final repetitive cry of “We used to wait for it, and now they’re screaming – sing the chorus again!”
Sprawl I (Flatland) – The final side of this magnum opus begins with the first of another mini two-part opera, a letter from the suburbs, as Win himself would concur. The first section starts with a moody ‘This Is The End’ type Doors pained stirring intro, a soundtrack to lost chapters in a past entombed within the confines of the sprawling suburbs, a theme that resonates with many of us. Hints of trembling Nino Rota tragic ‘The Godfather’ like strings, and Morricone inspired ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ emotional pulling soundtrack arks, encourage the old lip to quiver and the eyes to swell up. This almost depressingly melancholic song could tip those who’ve already found a length of rope and strong beam to attach it to, proceed to the next stage, yet there is something quite meaningful and elegantly touched on, the memories of a time spent just hanging out (no pun intended!) – which makes the second section ‘Sprawl II’ all the more dramatic.
Wins most sadly deliberated lines “Took a drive into the sprawl, to find the places we used to play. It was the loneliest day of my life, you’re talking at me but I’m still far away”, reinforce the sentimental tone.
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – The first few beats of the introduction almost sound like the beginning of a Scissor Sisters track, but thankfully it launches into some chic European version of Blondie with the pulsing disco beats of Moroder and the tom fills, zaps and laser sounds of a Kelly Marie track.
Triumphant in part, this Régine lead rolling lush composed anthem is one of the best things that the Arcade Fire have ever written, a masterstroke on their part which could have easily fallen to the wrong side of cool, and resulted in an awful pastiche. As it is there is nothing about this track that should work, but sublimely it does, and to boot it’s possibly one of the highlights.
Breathing out an ethereal vocal, Régine delivers an ode to those whose creative ambitions are crushed in the real world of our production line mundane lives – “They heard me singing and they told me to stop, quit these pretensions things and just punch the clock”.
Imprisoned in the restraints of a mediocrity, bereft of choices and escape, whether from the burden of countless generations underachievement and the cycle of despair or the realities of having to probably work in a dead-end job forever, whilst were led to believe that we can do anything we want and all have the career we want, the opportunity is there.
The Arcade Fire whine, but they have it exceptionally good compared to most, I mean they make music for a living, tour and get to lead a pretty good lifestyle, one in which they can get on with the process of making music. To me it looks like they escaped the suburbs.
Suburban War – Gangly Gene Clark electric guitar lushly provides some enchanting balled like accompaniment to Win’s Neil Young-esque narrative.
More sulking 80s backlit atmospherics and fatalistic delivered vocals relate a summery of the main themes voiced throughout the entire album, including innocence, purity, late night drives, time to think, loneliness, taking stock and agonizing over the future with the most touching lines being, “All my old friends, they don’t know me now, all my old friends are starring through me now”.
The bookend in a way to the opening ‘The Suburbs’, this emotive plea of a song seems almost bleak and desperate, only show a slight glimmer of hope when the middle-eight section comes in, but building to a contained final rolling, almost choral, last tumultuous crescendo.
The Suburbs (Continued) – This outro is a reprise of the opening motif, albeit in a cyclonic daydreaming manner, one bewitched with some movie-score pretensions and heavenly charm. The repetitive chorus of “If I could have it back all the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again”, amply summarises the whole oeuvre of themes circulating this album. Those final higher pitched sung words and empyrean ghostly strings just float out, lost in the ether, fading to nothing.
Now the band have relinquished during many interviews, the notions of concepts and opinion relating to their latest requiem, declaring that this record is just observational, a commentary on their lives spent in the USA, and is neither a love letter nor a charge at the suburbs, rather a love letter written from them.
The album cover depicts a mirage and force backdrop, which shows an olds mobile jalopy car parked-up in front of a mock-up projection of a typical suburban home, all manufactured in a studio, is this another clue or message? Should we be reading into the fact that this photo is artificial in a way, and that it reaffirms an imagined experience?
Whatever you or I wish to believe or read into, this third album, from one the most important bands around, is their grown-up masterpiece, a contemplative patient record that builds on the darker and more meaningful sentiment of Neon Bible. No hyperbole and overindulgence in expletives could possibly do it justice; you just got to listen to it.