By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
In the barren land of the contemporary concept album, the band that tries is king.
The Suburbs is the year’s only true concept album, as demonstrated by the thematic threads woven through songs, the reprises and continuations of songs across the disc, and the packaging. And, although it never quite attains the cohesion and creativity of Relient K’s 2009 offering Forget and Not Slow Down, the expansiveness of 2008’s Coldplay record Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends), or the dramatic force of 2008’s other great concept album, the Counting Crows’ Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, it certainly carries the torch into the coming decade as 2010’s concept album du jour.
Arcade Fire have long held indie credibility and respect, clarifying via Funeral (2004) and Neon Bible (2007) that they value record-making over single production. Each of their first two albums made the cut on numerous “Best of” lists, not only for the year they were released but also for the decade.
So the fact that The Suburbs is an even more complex and keenly rendered effort is saying something.
This album has a sound all its own, one that is clearly Arcade Fire but also fresh and unique to this record. For instance, as strong a composition as “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is, it would sound incomplete, empty even, were it to be placed on The Suburbs, an album characterized by a fullness of sound heretofore unachieved by the band.
What is perhaps most detrimental to the overall quality is the length of individual songs, most of which brush past the four minute mark. Arcade Fire has never shied away from breaking the three minute ceiling, and yet there is such a homogeneity of sound throughout that the duration of individual tracks causes the listening experience to blend together.
One might argue that this is a strength, that this provides cohesion that elevates the effort as a whole, yet it is difficult to argue this when many of the strongest individual songs — tracks like “Wasted Hours” and “Month of May” — have significant thematic value while aurally distinguishing themselves and remaining in the three minute range.
Perhaps this homogeneity is an intentional compositional decision on Arcade Fire’s part, meant to help convey sonically the boredom, fear, and regularity of suburban life that The Suburbs exposes and explores lyrically.
I can certainly respect this as a creative decision, though it doesn’t change the fact that, for as good a record as this is, I simply haven’t revisited it as often as other discs from 2010.
As the cover’s vibrant but sun-spotted, seventies-esque image of a residential home with car parked out front suggests, The Suburbs comes across quite convincingly as a historical document of the rapid post-World War II expansion of suburban areas, often referred to as sprawl. The hauntingly emotive “Sprawl I (Flatland)” aptly captures the claustrophobic nature of the neighborhood. As Win Butler sings, “The cops shone their lights on the reflectors of our bikes / and said, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ / — Well sir, it’s the first time I’ve felt like something is mine, like I have something to give.” Anyone who grew up in the suburbs will remember this urgency of exploration, of attempting to find a place in the larger world you felt existed but could never quite access.
Butler continues, “The last defender of the sprawl said, ‘Well where do you kids live?’ Well sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth I’ve been searching every corner of the earth.” This motif of authority, of the norm-protectors and upholders of the public safety blurring the line between security and apathy, is touched on across the record. As in suburban life, the authority blends into the background but is always there, threatening to impinge on the processes of youthful discovery.
On “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” Butler’s wife and bandmate Regine Chassagne takes on the role of an eighties performer, voicing over a bed of synthesized sound that, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop, quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” Here, she sings more directly of a fear of purposelessness, of the constrictive nature of the city lights.
As she goes on to sing, “Living in the sprawl the dead shopping malls rise like / mountains beyond mountains and there’s no end in sight. / I need the darkness. Someone, please cut the lights!”
These two tracks provide a fitting wrap-up before giving way to “The Suburbs (continued),” a minute long reprise of the title track, which nicely fades back into the opening (and title) track. The waning whisper of “The Suburbs (continued)” aptly makes one thrill at the returning vitality of “The Suburbs,” luring the listener back into this locale, “waiting in line for a number,” not understanding, like a “Modern Man,” getting “Ready to Start,” admiring the “Rococo” arrangement of images and sounds across The Suburbs, traversing the loneliness of the “Empty Room,” the feeling of living underground in a “City With No Children” in “a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison,” adding up both half lights to find “(No Celebration)” but a prayer “to god I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” instead, witnessing a “Suburban War” where “the music divides us into tribes” and “all my old friends, they don’t know me now / all my old friends are staring through me now,” reliving the passion and violence of the “Month of May,” reminiscing about “Wasted Hours” that passed “before we knew where to go and what to do,” remembering how “I used to write letters” and “We Used to Wait” for a letter to return though “sometimes it never came,” and ultimately ending up back in the “Sprawl” — the “Flatlands,” the “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” all amounting to a concept of “The Suburbs,” taker of all the time that “I’d only waste… again.”
For keenly recreating the texture and the mood of the suburban life and all its benefits, shortcomings, and ramifications, Arcade Fire deserves praise for The Suburbs. In a sense, they have created an aural landscape that is difficult to revisit for too long or too often, which suggests an interesting question as to the divide between music as entertainment and music as art.
Regardless, they have also created an outstanding concept album.