Cemented as the “it” band in the indie scene, Arcade Fire may have embraced new business models in the teetering music industry—from sweetheart deals with amazon.com to leveraging blog buzz—but in many ways this Canadian band is strangely old-school. These guys make albums, for one thing: Not just 11 or 12 download-friendly tracks mashed together, but full-blown concept albums, filled with themes and nuance and even a semi-coherent structure.
Frontman Win Butler describes his third release, The Suburbs, as “a mix of Depeche Mode and Neil Young.” At turns poignant and biting, it mulls American complacency and the culture of cul-de-sacs. It is meant to be listened to in toto, with themes and even lines from verses weaving from track to track.
Numerous tracks suggest that America’s suburban ethos is, at its core, a craven one—constructs built to shield its residents from the beautiful passions and unavoidable messiness inherent in life. “Pray to God I won’t live/To see the death of everything that’s wild,” Butler sings on “Half Light II.” And “City With No Children” reads, “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.”
Arcade Fire’s harshest criticism, though, isn’t aimed at the suburbs, exactly, but more broadly at our modern culture. On “Month of May,” we hear, “Everybody’s in love/Then the city was hit from above/And just when I knew what I wanted to say/A violent wind blew the wires away/They were shocked in the suburbs.” Butler doesn’t name the violent wind, or winds (though he does make reference to an economic collapse), but in later songs he suggests that some of its ferocity comes from technology, which he sees as sapping us of our humanity. On “Deep Blue,” he pleads with us to “put the laptop down for a while.” And one track later, on “We Used to Wait,” he continues the thought with, “I used to write letters/I used to sign my name/I used to sleep at night/Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain/ … Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last.”
The result of all these influences? “The Month of May” hints at the answer: “The kids are still standing with their arms folded tight.” It’s a cynicism Butler believes leads to either real or spiritual death—and wants no part of (“Don’t lay me down there/With my arms folded tight”).
Instead, he wants to appreciate his friends more and hold his daughter’s hand while showing “her some beauty before all this damage is done.” Giving a nod to the simple joys of childhood and youth, “The Suburbs (Continued)” reminisces, “If I could have it back/All the time that we wasted/I’d only waste it again.”
The message some will take as a call to live might hit others in a more maudlin way. The entire album goes beyond pensive into, at times, navel-gazing territory. At times it takes an isolationist bent (“I’m alone again,” laments “Empty Room.” “When I’m by myself I can be myself/And my life is coming/But I don’t know when”). And as much as we may sympathize with Butler when he sings, on “Wasted Hours,” “Wishing you were anywhere but here/You watch the life you’re living disappear/And now I see/We’re still kids in buses/Longing to be free,” there’s also truth in the fact that, just as kids need to go to school, adults need to work—sometimes in jobs they’re less than thrilled to go to every day.
There’s a small hint of rebelliousness in these poetic lines, too. “You told us we were too young,” goes “Half Light I,” “Lock us up safe, and hide the key/But the night tears us loose/And in the half-light we’re free.”
The Suburbs doesn’t get urban with foul language, violent exhibitionism or sexual preoccupations. And, as such, it resembles those manicured lawns and nicely aligned mailboxes all along the street on which Win Butler himself grew up.
But like the very ‘burbs of Butler’s imagination, The Suburbs opens the door to darker things. Walk through these melancholy avenues, and they will begin to feel morose to the point at which, perhaps, they become oppressive. Arcade Fire welcomes us into a bleak, practically dystopian world where things are not quite what they seem. Then the band implores us to make this bleak world better. And nothing can be said against that. Just don’t wrap yourself in their bitter cloak for too long.
So the end result is a lament, an indictment and, curiously, a small celebration of, in Butler’s words, “these cities meant to change.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.