At lot has changed since the Arcade Fire released Neon Bible in 2007, a cautionary lullaby to a world on the precipice. Perhaps if they were in the studio when Obama won the election, we'd get a happy record out of them. As things stand now; the economy is shit, Haiti is a pile of rubble, and there's 150 million gallons of oil in the Atlantic that weren't there 6 months ago. If you were looking to the Arcade Fire for a philosophical back rub or confirmation that everything will be alright, consider The Suburbs the fourth horsemen of the apocalypse.
From the moment the Arcade Fire establish their mise en scene, it's clearly not a pretty place, apocalyptic themes still in full bloom. In fact, if any playwrights are reading this blog, I'd like to formally submit The Suburbs as the soundtrack for The Road: The Musical*. All jokes aside, The Suburbs is a titanic piece of art, whose theatrics and attention to detail is unparalleled. The lyrics vividly paint a portrait of crumbling cities, ashy sunrises, and abandoned buildings. Despite the somber subject matter, the Arcade Fire sure know how to make Armageddon catchy.
A mastery of orchestration afford a band the opportunity to take chances and experiment in ways lesser bands cannot. No band has recent memory has done more for the violin (or the glockenspiel for that matter) than the Arcade Fire. No band does so much with so much, sounding larger than life one moment and whisper quiet the next. The Suburbs finds them enriching several songs with electronic cues and aggressive electric guitar riffs that they had never dabbled in prior. As songs build to their logical climaxes, they often lapse into brief detours that find new ways to satisfy. On Ready To Start, the bridge is tempered by a rumbling synth pulse just as it's about to burst. The Coldplay-inspired underwater groans of Rococo have a similar effect, a metaphorical deep breath before taking the final plunge. These moments serve to reinforce what makes The Arcade Fire such a seminal band. Because they have so thoroughly mastered the fundamentals they can afford to add a layer of howling guitar to Empty Room, a song that would have been perfectly agreeable without it, but becomes sadly manic in its presence. And for those who have grown accustomed to the Arcade Fire for their "anthem" fix, there's something here for you too. Modern Man and City With No Children stack up favorably with the strongest tracks on Funeral and Neon Bible, and the gorgeous electric growl of Sprawl II defies explanation.
As expected from a production of this magnitude, Win Butler does not shy away from infusing The Surburbs with a hearty dose of melodrama. But heck, we're talking about the end of the world here. By and large, the lyrics are a tasteful blend of remorse and indignation, sounding more resigned and tired than condemning as they did on Neon Bible. He still harbors a bit of resentment for "the kids", who "want to be so hard" but are "already bored" by the time the first bombs fall. Mercifully, Regine is able to swoop in and take the reigns before Win lapses into too much proselytizing, diluting his venom with the beautiful "Empty Room". The middle portion of the album finds Win turned from curmudgeon to castaway, feeling the nostalgia one feels only after destruction. As he wallows deeper into what he's lost, it is Regine again who saves him with Sprawl II, ending the album on a beautiful and defiant note.
Remarkably, this whole give and take works quite well, so long as the rest of the group manages to keep things interesting in the background. On songs like The Sprawl (Flatland), the production is so sparse that the Win's lyrics are thrust front and center and sound like the incoherent ramblings of an aged beatnik. In fact, I half expected a "...man" at the end of the last sentence. A similar sore thumb is the bewildering Month of May, an energetic, but minor track that has no place on an album already an hour long. These quibbles should not distract from the fact that The Suburbs is a perfectly sequenced and realized album.
The Suburbs catalogues what it feels like to return home again after years away, and coming to terms with what that means. If Funeral embraced childhood wonder and Neon Bible channeled teenage angst, then The Suburbs finds them fully grown and grappling with the possibility that their best could be behind them. A scary thought when you're scarcely 30.
"Ready to Start"
*In 3D, of course.