Album: The Suburbs
Artist: Arcade Fire
Released: August 10th, 2010
Highlights: The Suburbs, Ready to Start, Modern Man, City With No Children, Suburban War
As harsh as it may sound, rock stars are – mostly – lousy storytellers. Surely, they are capable of telling a coherent tale during the amount of time it takes for a pop song to run its course; however, when they try to stretch the plot over an entire album, one ends up with an item that may be musically appealing – as are “Tommy”, “Quadrophenia”, and “The Wall”, to mention a few – but whose script does not hold under scrutiny. And that is why “The Suburbs”, by Arcade Fire, is so utterly brilliant. As a concept album that builds all of its songs around a firmly defined idea but chooses not to construct a tale on top of it, it understands the pitfalls musicians who embrace their operatic aspirations too tightly fall into and avoids them altogether. “The Suburbs”, therefore, does not sacrifice quality songwriting with the purpose of moving a story forward; and neither does it fret over putting together a narrative to take place in the world it assembles.
The beauty of that approach is that not only is every single one of the record’s sixteen songs good at worst, and excellent at best (an absolute rarity for concept albums), but also that, by not dwelling on intricacies and events, “The Suburbs” makes its message universal. And it is hard not to understand and relate to what Win Butler and his group are expressing concern over, for it is a feeling everyone who has stepped out of adolescence and into adulthood has felt: the somewhat haunting notion that the place where one grew up has changed; and that the environment that gave birth to one’s generation is now different and will, thereby, produce human beings older folks will fail to comprehend. It is about reminiscing on a past that is long gone, worrying about the new kids, and being fearful of the world into which your own children will be born.
It is all there, neatly encompassed in incredible tunes that take Arcade Fire’s often expansive indie rock to new realms: the title track dives so much into music hall, with its dancing piano, The Kinks’ Ray Davies might as well have written it; “Ready to Start” sounds so gigantic every bass note and guitar strum hit listeners like a hammer; “Empty Room” matches punk guitars with Régine’s angelic voice, which buried in the midst of the overwhelming chaos tries to find calm inside a hurricane of loneliness; “Suburban War” has a chiming riff that could belong to either R.E.M. or The Byrds; and “Sprawl II”, with its catchy beat, is possibly inspired by the encounters Blondie had with synth pop, only darker, as Régine – once more taking lead vocals – sings of feeling suffocated by the metropolis the once charming suburbs have turned into.
It is in that mix of joy and concern “The Suburbs” exists. “But in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard”, sings Win Butler in the opening track, only to, a few verses later, fall back into the reality where such a past does not seem to mean much, as it is being erased and replaced, “And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall”. And what he sees rising is a generation with empty values (“Rococo”), that is broken by economic and social issues (Half Light II), controlled by technology (“Big Blue”), and living incarcerated inside private condos that destroy nature, restrict freedom, and pasteurize life (“City With No Children”). It is a concern all human beings have held, and it is quite remarkable to hear it so clearly broadcast through music that is excellent and varied. “The Suburbs” is the perfect concept album.