Album review: Arcade Fire – ‘The Suburbs’ (Mercury)

Arcade Fire explore the past and make bold steps forward for their ambitious but accessible masterpiece

You can tell a lot about someone by their touchstone words. Key nouns, cropping up again and again, leave trails like psychic footprints. Some words that recur and ring through the work of [a]Arcade Fire[/a]: ‘kids’, ‘parents’, ‘car’, ‘town’, ‘city’, ‘house’, ‘home’.

If ‘Funeral’ celebrated neighbourhood origins and bristled with spiky youthful energies, and ‘Neon Bible’ hit the highway in search of bigger dreams and bigger sounds, ‘The Suburbs’ is about coming home to discover that it’s never the same as before you left.

Rather than blustering, the album saunters in casually, gently placing out the terms of engagement over the easiest of piano and cosy bass. “You always seemed so sure that we’d be fighting in a suburban civil war/But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored” Win croons, and where a couple of years ago, this song might have been charged with do-or-die Romeo & Juliet angst, now it’s wry, reflective and resolute, with a graceful, ghostly feel that pervades the whole album. ‘The Suburbs’ a hauntological record, spooked by memories just out of reach.

On a more than thematic level, too, it forms the perfect third step after ‘Funeral’’s nervous, nerdy kicks and the ‘proper rock stars’ sonic strut of ‘Neon Bible’, which sometimes tended to the portentous; ‘The Suburbs’ isn’t anything as simple as ‘back to basics’ – they’re a much more accomplished, musically interesting band now. But it finds the band reclaiming a sense of humour and playfulness that smooths over a deadly serious intent.

City With No Children’ typifies this new mood of a maturity that’s anything but boring; the good times [a]Eddie Cochran[/a] riff sharpened by [a]Television[/a]-like textures. Win’s Orwell reference to millionaires quoting The Sermon On The Mount is undercut by a mischievous self-awareness just as the stately feel of the track is needled by the raw energy of the guitar sound; “I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts about it… When you’re hiding underground, the rain can’t get you wet/But do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt?”

Suburban War’, meanwhile, provides the peak of the album’s beauty, crystallising its sense of nameless loss, a past that can’t be reclaimed. “This town’s so strange/They built it to change and while we sleep the streets get rearranged” says Win, before the song takes on a wolrd-weary nostalgia similar to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’ as Win muses “now the music divides us into tribes/Yeah, my old friends, they don’t know me now”. ‘Deep Blue’, named for the IBM-developed supercomputer that defeated grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1996, treats the triumph of technology over human as some sort of generational loss of innocence: “a dead star collapsing/we could see that something was ending/Are you through pretending?/We saw the signs in the suburbs”.

Ranging as it does through styles from the glam-pop of ‘Wasted Hours’ to the garage-punk of ‘We Used To Wait’ to the edgy Tom Petty-isms of ‘Modern Man’, the album’s concept is pinned up by with two musical diptychs, ‘Half Light I’/’Half Light II (No Celebration)’ and ‘Sprawl I (Flatland)’/ ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’. The former pair are the most ghostly, eerie point of the album, like a half-remembered dream of glimmering guitar and minimal drums, its second half incorporating vintage synth sounds even more naturally than the [a]Yeah Yeah Yeahs[/a] did on ‘It’s Blitz!’. The second duo forces a kind of crisis, Win trying to find old childhood haunts in suburban wasteland through misty, mournful guitar, before Régine takes over for the second half, both celebrating and fearing the spread of the city lights (“sometimes I wonder if the world is so small/That we will never get away from the sprawl”) over exuberant, [a]Abba[/a]-ish disco pop, before the album closes with a returning refrain of the opening track, Régine and Win swapping the line “Sometimes I get believing/I’m moving past the feeling”. Many bands make noises about having made an album that demands to be listened to as a whole, but ‘The Suburbs’’ structure defies skipping, pulling you into its world until it’s done with you. Sonically, it’s the best-produced rock album we’ve heard in years, full of a subtle atmosphere that sounds like nothing else at the moment.

Ultimately, there’s no reconciliation with the suburbs, but there’s no giving up and no turning back either. It would have been so easy for Arcade Fire to take a different direction on this album, to keep chasing bigger sounds and sales, [a]Kings Of Leon[/a]-style. But they’re too awkward for that. If they can’t help but mock the empty-headed cool kids of the [a]Cocteau Twins[/a]-spectral ‘Rococo’, “using great big words that they don’t understand”, then they’re no more on the side of the man: “Businessmen drink my blood like the kids in art school said they would/I guess I’ll just begin again” reflects Win on ‘Ready To Start’.

They’ve judged their moment perfectly, and this deserves to be their ‘Automatic For The People’; an album that combines mass accessibility with much greater ambition. Pretty much perfect, in other words – and despite their best efforts, listening to it feels just like coming home.
Emily Mackay

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