Funeral was such a stunningly successful debut for Arcade Fire that it’s difficult to appreciate exactly how audacious it was. Here was this huge band, tackling huger themes with an earnest emotional bent that set them at odds with their coy and disaffected peers, with two singers, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, blowing out their voices over massive arrangements while most indie rockers were still muttering ironic sex-talk over fuzzy guitars. It shouldn’t have held together as well as it did, and as their less accomplished sophomore album, Neon Bible, demonstrated, the role that Arcade Fire had chosen was one they’d have to grow into. Three years later, they’ve given us The Suburbs, a stunningly accomplished album about embattled, often embittered, adulthood by a band that continues to mythologize childhood even as it moves decisively into artistic maturity.
So, yes, as the multipart song suites and evocative artwork suggest, The Suburbs is a thematically driven album, though this is to be expected from Arcade Fire. They’re the type of musicians who traffic, not always gracefully, in Meaningful Statements, and their listeners have certainly noticed, taking in both music and mythos with either equal rapture or disdain. The band’s lyrical inspirations have also served as shorthand for their discography, with critics typically contrasting Funeral‘s mournful interiority with the expansive, even topical foreboding of its successor. But reducing the pair to Personal Album and Political Album underestimates Butler’s skill as a lyricist. Undeniably, he’s a man who gravitates toward big themes, and his tendency to treat those themes with overwrought poetry is a real weakness. The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s most lyrically mature statement by a pretty wide margin, but tracks like “Modern Man” and “We Used to Wait” still indulge in generic-brand world-weariness. What works even more strongly in Butler’s favor, though, is a subtlety that eschews big messages and thesis-like statements of intent in favor of novelistic investigation.
Arcade Fire’s albums are so far removed from the self-absorption typical of indie rock because they draw bold lines between the personal struggles of neighbors and strangers alike, always appreciating what is shared in intensely solitary moments of loss, how world events, communicated piecemeal by blogs and cable news networks, can seem both distant and devastating. That’s why Funeral‘s subjective traumas and triumphs occur as a whole family disintegrates (“Tunnels,” “The Back Seat”) and a faraway homeland is ravaged by poverty and war (“Haiti”), why the affairs of church, state, and reality TV documented on Neon Bible culminate in a singular declaration of resolve (“My body is a cage/That keeps me from dancing with the one I love/But my mind holds the key”).
That same sense of individual lives stricken through by structure and event returns on The Suburbs, as on the album’s centerpiece, “Half Light II (No Celebration),” in which Butler and Chassagne intone: “When we watched the markets crash/The promises we made were torn.” They’re playing lovers forced to waste their youth apart and in search of economic, rather than romantic, sustenance, finding freedom later in life, but not without awareness that the vitality of their younger years has been lost: “Oh this city’s changed so much…Pray to God I won’t live to see/The death of everything that’s wild.” The line should resonate with city dwellers fearful of Disneyfication and with those observing the dismal advance of suburbs over green spaces, but it’s ultimately a plea for real life, not real estate, a sad acknowledgment that the onset of adulthood closes off the unpredictable frontiers of youthful possibility.
Even so, the song ultimately hits as hard as it does not because of its multilayered poetry, but because of its exquisite performance. It’s one of many songs on The Suburbs that fuses the band’s elaborate chamber-pop to chugging drums and shimmering, interweaving guitar and synth melodies. Arcade Fire signaled their interest in new wave on Neon Bible‘s “Black Waves – Bad Vibrations,” but where that number began as distorted dance-pop and morphed, unexpectedly, into an orchestral dirge, “Half Light II” (as well as “Empty Room,” “Suburban War,” and “Sprawl II”) manages a surprisingly graceful fusion of the two styles, with churning string arrangements adding depth to the piece. Which is largely typical of the orchestral parts on the album: Rather than swooping in to develop instantly memorable melodies as on fan favorites like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go,” the arrangements here tend to function as shading effects, elegiac accents for already-rich pop songs about entrapment and regret.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that “Half Light II” comes not only as the second half to an equally stunning first (“Half Light I” is its gorgeous negative, a baroque-pop gem with new-wave undertones), but is also the climax of a five-song sequence that forms the stunning emotional core of the album. Before it comes “City with No Children,” a percussive rockabilly-tinged number that contains Butler’s most immediately engaging vocal performance, and after is “Suburban War,” a symphonic torch song where he mourns not the absence of a lover, but his unrecognizable childhood friends. It’s a run of songs as impressive as any I’ve heard, and while its clarity of vision and deft execution can only make the album’s late-coming filler even more apparent for what it is, it’s mostly just cause for awe and enjoyment: Taken together, it’s easily the best work the band has put to record.
And it’s all set in motion by Chassagne’s despairing “Empty Room,” the unequivocal highlight of the album, which, for all of its ingenious craftsmanship, finally stands on the merits of Chassagne’s gut-wrenching performance. Arcade Fire has frequently underutilized her powerful voice, assigning her backup duty or letting her wail on the odd bridge while leaving the nimbler melodic work to Butler. But she’s capable of a lot more and she proves that all over The Suburbs, even delivering the album’s finale, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a synth-pop lamentation on the ubiquity of mini-malls and city lights.
Art-rockers launching righteous bromides at suburbia may sound predictable, but such easy condescension is simply not what Arcade Fire’s up to: To be blunt, it’s well beneath them. The Suburbs fits so well with the band’s existing motifs of entrapment and escapism because it’s less concerned with sending up middle-class banality, more attuned to the emotional valences of a life that seems inevitably directed toward consumption, obligation, repetition. It’s about how the dreamers who rebelled on Funeral by sleeping in and kept the car running on Neon Bible in preparation for their getaway eventually find themselves, buffeted by economic necessity and personal misfortune, crowded in and isolated all the same.
It’s not all tragedy, though, as the album’s second half suggests that there is some power in looking back over such a life and trying to find one’s self in it, discerning moment’s of real potential from the wasted hours so that life in the present might not be so unbearable. “Sprawl I (Flatland)” begins with tense reminiscence, putting a suspense-film score behind a drive through the suburbs, taken on a whim to locate “the places where we used to play.” Confronted by a cop and asked if he knows what time it is, Butler replies, “Well, sir, it’s the first time I’ve felt like something is mine/Like I have something to give.” And give he does, and not just him, but every member of Arcade Fire on nearly every track of The Suburbs, another triumph of emotional generosity from the most humane and vital rock group of our generation.