Music

Fucking in the Streets

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

The suburbs are a boring, possibly "inauthentic," and even soul-deadening place to grow up. The suburbs are a hugely irresponsible, unsustainable way for humans to use land, allocate resources, and organize living (see: individualist car culture's effect on the Gulf of Mexico). These are the twinned critiques that seem to inform Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs, and the range between them suits the Canadian band just fine.

The best of their stuff has always zoomed out from the whingingly personal to the broadly political (a scope mirrored musically by the leaps from Win Butler's unadorned, outgunned quaver to his band's grand, theatrical crescendos). The Suburbs doesn't stun like the band's debut (more on this shortly), but its sprawl is satisfying and a fine development for the band.

Arcade Fire are still doing the Springsteen- swept-up-in-an-orchestra-pit-tornado thing, and it's still a terribly effective approach. The deviations from their formula are slight and smoothly integrated: the honky-tonk piano of "The Suburbs" and the easy country gait, acoustic strumming, and faint twang of "Wasted Hours," the pneumatic drum rolls and steam-hiss synth emissions of "Half Light II (No Celebration)." More noticeable, though, are the many moments of typically elegant and adept instrumentation: the racing violin jabs of "Empty Room," the weird turnarounds in the guitar and rhythm on the verse of "Modern Man," the backbeat and breathless cadence of "Month of May," the twitchy background guitar on "We Used to Wait"—the glassy, ghostly keys and symphonic synths and strings throughout. (Railing against suburbs fits in with the general nostalgist bent of a band with a hurdy-gurdy and a just-shy-of-steampunk sensibility, as if things would be better if we could just go back to trains and streetcars, postcards and telegrams.)

Lyrically, Butler and wife Régine Chassagne continue to balance bleakness with tremulous hope. And while the album often adopts an adolescent perspective on its subject—complaining of boredom, talking about learning to drive or how music and hairstyles can split kids into tribes—the cumulative effect of its recurring themes (cars, highways, malls, the youth) and overall worry hint at larger, more fundamental problems without naming them outright or being so didactic as to dispel the band's magic. (Also, it turns out, when a 30-ish married couple sings about "the kids," it comes across as benignly concerned rather than condescending.) And anyway, the band's audience is largely those kids still stuck out in the suburbs right now, for whom musical divides may still feel like war.

For an album against sprawl, The Suburbs itself is pretty sprawling at an hour, and it lacks the concise kick of the band's Funeral. In a recent article in the New York Times, Merge Records' Mac McCaughan talked about the Arcade Fire being in it for a living and also being in it for the long haul. Maybe part of that is they don't have to make every album a revolutionary event, they don't have to try to replicate the surprise of Funeral with every subsequent release; they just have to keep the band's engine running. The Suburbs does that ably and suggests the band isn't going to run out of road any time soon. recommended

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