“If you say city to people, people have no problem thinking of the city as rife with problematic, screwed-up people, but if you say suburbs – and I’m not the first person to say this, it’s been said over and over again in literature – there’s a sense of normalcy.” – Eric Bogosian
In its first couple seasons, the TV show “Weeds” had an opening credits sequence that was pure brilliance. It starts with a map of open land that quickly develops into the twisting roads of subdivisions with houses lined up right next to one another like a mouth full of teeth. Looking down those fully developed streets you notice that all the houses look similar, all the cars look similar, and even the people jogging around the neighborhood look similar. All of this backed by the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes” from the 1960s which features the lyrics “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes all the same”. The song was written about the homogenization and conformity of middle-class suburbia, a place where the houses (“little boxes”) were made cheaply (“ticky-tacky”) and uniformly (“all the same”), and the people living there all followed the same life path to continue the cycle. And while that credits sequence along with Reynolds’ song wrap up in under 90 seconds, The Arcade Fire are now coming in decades later to dive headfirst into that same subject matter, but across a 64-minute album appropriately titled “The Suburbs”.
“Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Win and Will Butler grew up in Houston, TX, a city that author Nigel Goslin once called “six suburbs in search of a center”. Calling that sort of environment home serves as a strong inspiration for much of the material on “The Suburbs”. The opening title track sets the theme and overall mood of what’s to come, sketching out ideas about “suburban war”, the follies (“we’re still screaming and running through the yard”) and perils of ADD-riddled youth (“by the time the first bombs fell/we were already bored”), along with the temporary nature of things (“all of the houses we built in the 70’s finally fall/meant nothing at all”). This suburban struggle is in stark contrast with how the band started their careers, opening their debut album “Funeral” with the exuberant “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, in which two kids talk about breaking out of their snow-buried homes and living free among nature. The way it plays out, timeline and all, you could look at “Funeral” through the hopeful eyes of youth while “The Suburbs” serves as the sequel in which that same narrator is much older and after a hard life now views things from a darker and more pessimistic viewpoint. They may be different thematically, but they’re cut from the same relatable cloth that speaks to our times and empathizes with the good and bad moments of our lives. It’s for that same reason “Neon Bible” and its darkly-themed condemnation of religious zealots wasn’t as effective.
“Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” – Aristotle
One of the challenges that “The Suburbs” faces is the lack of massive and explosive choruses. That’s almost to be expected given the subject matter, but it does make the full album a little tougher to swallow than you might expect even though the individual songs are among their most accessible to date. The Arcade Fire don’t really do “small” songs, but the fair amount of restraint shown on tracks like “Modern Man” and “Deep Blue” is somewhat admirable. It’s about building towards something, and those calmer tracks are needed, and songs like “Wasted Hours” and “Sprawl (Flatland)” also fit that bill well without getting too bogged down in somber Neil Young-ian folk. There’s a whole segment on the second half of the album that starts to blend together if you’re not careful, and the loud and brash “Month of May” seems almost purposely inserted in there to break that up, with somewhat mixed results. But the track sequencing is actually more important than ever on “The Suburbs”, and aside from a few big highlights such as “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Empty Room”, the rest of the album makes the best and greatest impact when listened to from beginning to end. Within that full album context, there’s very little that seems like it could be cut while maintaining the overall thematic arc.
“You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope and as old as your despair. In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and then only, are you grown old.” – Douglas MacArthur
In this single song obsessed society however, it’s unlikely that most of the people purchasing this album will ever hear the entire thing in one sitting more than once or twice. Our society’s impatience and constant push for instant gratification is largely tackled on “We Used to Wait”. Butler begins the song by talking about the now old school art of letter writing, and how “now our lives are changing fast/hope that something pure can last”. In the final minute, he mentions what music is like today, stating, “We used to wait for it/now we’re screaming ‘sing the chorus again'” before indicting himself as well by changing the “we” to an “I”. Funny then how the song closes out with the chant “wait for it” while the chorus never does reappear as the song fades out and is replaced by the sound of cars speeding down the highway – another reference to our fast-paced society. There are other small indications that lyrically read like Butler has a problem with hipsters as well, which is amusing considering how many of them are Arcade Fire fans. The entirety of “Rococo” seems to be a pointed insult, with lines 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 making light of the unending blog hype cycle by saying “They build it up just to burn it back down”. Perhaps he was just being ironic.
“To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.” – Oscar Wilde
Sonically, “The Suburbs” is close to your average Arcade Fire record. There are plenty of things going on in each song to make them seem busy, but never TOO busy. You’ve got some standard big-time orchestral fare with tracks like the Owen Palett-arranged “Empty Room” and “Sprawl (Flatland)”. There’s the introspective folk of “Wasted Hours” and “Suburban War”. The plodding piano and guitars of “The Suburbs” and “We Used to Wait” are also familiar territory, as are the high energy electric guitars of “Ready to Start” and “Month of May”. Where the band switches things up are mostly on the two “sequel” songs of “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. It’s there that they get heavy with the synths and push towards an 80s vibe. You can hear bits of Depeche Mode and Blondie pushing through, and there’s little coincidence that the album’s best song “Sprawl II” comes nearly face to face with the classic “Heart of Glass”. While an album with plenty of synths might work on some level for the Arcade Fire as the pipe organ did on “Neon Bible”, they were far better and smarter to blend their various trademarks together here, as it keeps things interesting across the 16 tracks and 64 minutes.
“It is an illusion that youth is happy. An illusion of those who have lost it.” – William Somerset Maugham
Those looking for The Arcade Fire to repeat their mindblowing success that was “Funeral” will more than likely come away from “The Suburbs” a little disappointed. Given that the two records are spiritual cousins however, there’s plenty to still get excited about. It’s wonderful to hear the band come out of the funk that “Neon Bible” put them in and return to something a little more basic. The concepts on “The Suburbs” are very much broad-stroked, and that’s on purpose to give you the easiest route to grasping and relating to the material. So there’s plenty of the old ideas, a touch of the new, and a maturity that’s necessary in these tough times. This may not be an album to get lost in given how steeped in reality it is, but what it lacks in escapism it more than makes up for with high, sweeping drama that reminds us, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Living in the suburbs among the mass-produced houses and carefully planned subdivisions was never really as great as we seem to remember it. Win, Regine and the rest of the band spend “The Suburbs” trying to remind us of that, with the hope we’ll avoid making the same mistakes with our children as our parents made with us. Most of us have lived long enough to realize that life typically doesn’t go the way that we plan, and as life passes you by, so do many of your dreams. Depressing as that may be, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to keep on trying each and every day to make this world a better place. If you’re looking for one, perhaps this record will be the wake-up call you need to avoid being drafted in yet another “suburban war”.
“Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.” – Cyril Connolly