The first time I listened to Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs, I was ready to hate it—or at least love it substantially less than the emerging conventional wisdom was dictating, à la last year’s premature enthusiasm for Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective. (The indie world has this annoying habit of telegraphing its marching orders online weeks or months ahead of a release date.) But something happened on the way to a knee-jerk contrarian review: it turns out the advance word wasn’t all hype.
The Suburbs has many attributes that seem to be in small supply among bands right now—such as real emotional heft, or else an affinity for more than one type of tune—but chief among them has to be its solution for a puzzle surely plaguing hundreds of musicians: and that’s how to translate the malaise of this recession into rock that can actually move you.
Spleen-venting over a generation’s busted prospects has been second nature for frontmen ever since Johnny Rotten spit at us about his perceived lack of a future. But expressing shadowy portent—the feeling that you’re maybe just about to fall over the edge, but could also remain A-OK for some unspecified length of time—is a different thing altogether. For starters, it takes the cathartic yawp out of a lead singer’s toolkit. And if rock musicians also don’t feel like guaranteeing that whatever’s beyond the darkness on the edge of town will be survivable in the end, Springsteen’s inspirational uplift also becomes inappropriate. No wonder, then, that much of this year’s most fashionable rock has retreated into escapist, adolescent stomp, or else has become deliberately inscrutable in its moodiness. (Don’t bother me, I’m just here in my bedroom daydreaming, assembling confusing lyrics, and maybe yelling occasionally!)
Arcade Fire deserves some real credit for crafting—and mostly succeeding with—an approach that offers empathy and mindfulness as substitutes for the rage/hope dichotomy when trying to rock with the times. To wit: while the construct of suburbia is, by now, used to absorbing a lot of digs from self-appointed artistes, Arcade Fire’s third album isn’t a tear-down job bemoaning the hypocrisy and tradeoffs of adulthood. (A 16-song rock album that runs over an hour in length probably isn’t taking a progressive city planner’s approach to the notion of sprawl, either.)
In the album’s lyrics, it’s complacent and well-fed suburbia’s sworn enemy—righteous indignation—that comes in for a critique on “City With No Children,” when Win Butler notes (correctly) that pure-as-driven-snow politics won’t even pay the interest on your debts, let alone the principal. (That, as they say online, is some real talk.) “You never trust a millionaire / quoting the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ / I used to think I was not like them / But I’m beginning to have my doubts / My doubts about it,” Butler says at another point in the song, underlining the truth that your old perceptions of yourself have this uncanny way of deteriorating—and how the standards you thought you had maybe haven’t obtained for quite some time.
All this maturity would no doubt come across as leaden and dull if Arcade Fire’s music wasn’t so consistently thrilling in its sophistication. The piano chords that root the album’s opening title track sound as if they could have been played by The Stray Gators (who backed Neil Young on Harvest and Journey Through the Past). “Modern Man” has the strutting confidence of musicians well-versed in the traditions of early punk. Elsewhere, the band flashes affection for symphonic scale—particularly in songs bracketed into two suitelike sections, such as “Sprawl.” The first half of that number (subtitled “Flatland”) features some triple-meter guitar plucking and a descending bass figure that almost works like a tragic passacaglia. Then part two cranks up the synths and the electro beat while banging home the refrain “sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small, can we ever get away from the sprawl.”
But just when you think we’re headed in for an easy bit of dystopian, antisuburbanite angst, the album’s strongest hook knocks you over the head—an octave leap in the vocal line that occurs just after co-lead singer Régine Chassagne has compared that very same unending sprawl to “mountains beyond mountains.” This organic, naturalist image, paired with the heart-stopping rise of the vocal melody, winds up painting suburbia as some kind of romantically flawed paradise—or at least a place whose promise might have made subprime mortgages seem like a good idea, once.
If it seems curious that an album received so credulously—and prematurely—by rock tastemakers actually winds up being about challenging received wisdoms, well, so much the better. The lead single from The Suburbs tells us that while “all the kids” know the emperor has no clothes, they’ve decided that it’s better to bow anyway, lest they find themselves alone. You can connect this notion back to almost any aspect of the era right before our economic free fall—from the “serious” reputation we unthinkingly accorded to politicians, or the fealty rendered unto titans of our financial system. But now, absent a prescription for what’s next, exactly, Arcade Fire proposes the next best thing, with the lines “my mind is wide open / now I’m ready to start.” Are these folks seriously proposing thoughtfulness as rebel rock? Here’s hoping it’s just radical enough a concept to take root.