Funeral was about family, and Neon Bible was about institutions. The Suburbs on first listen, feels like adolescence, the time when you’re trapped between leaving one and joining the other. Will and Win Butler told NPR that the record would be about their childhood in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. So that makes sense. But what this very long –maybe too long–album seems to be about is losing and regaining innocence, reconciling your private world (developed in your room, in study hall, in the back car seat on family road trips) with the outside one.
In a sense that lost innocence has always played a part in their work, from “Neighborhood #1” to “No Cars Go.” That’s why they were such great inspiration for Spike Jonze as he adapted Where The Wild Things Are (it looks like he’s repaying the favor now). But adolescence and young adulthood feels like the center for the first time.
That this theme is back is apparent from the opening notes. “The Suburbs” bookends the album, titles the album, provides its thesis, etc, its piano-laden calls to “grab your mother’s keys / we’re leaving.” We heard “Ready To Start,” but “Modern Man” is one of the most interesting tracks on the record. Lyrically it sticks to a theme of suburban dissatisfaction, but the mix is what’s notable. Win Butler’s melody and prose suggest bombast, but his gentle delivery floats above a sketch of a larger, louder song. In another context, the line about wanting to “break the mirror” of the Modern Man might induce a cringe, but here the subtlety of the mix and Butler’s delivery drains the line of macho stupidity. “Rococo” is the example he uses of “great big words that they don’t understand,” but it could also refer to the decorative strings (they’re far more necessary in “Empty Room”) and bits of what sounds like harpsichord, as well as the suburbs’ love of style over substance.
In “Rococo” Butler mentions the “modern kids,” and in “City With No Children” he warns, “never trust a millionaire” over the song’s handclaps. All this could remind you of the Hold Steady. But Arcade Fire still see themselves as the kids (remember the “us kids know” of “No Cars Go”), which makes them more invested in the “private prisons” of age and money. They don’t have Craig Finn’s wry distance. You hear it again in the most electric songs like “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Suburban War” the struggle for purity and innocence as much a matter of life and death as it was for, say, Holden Caulfield. Or it can be as easy as the “kids standing with their arms folded tight” as they are in “Month Of May,” a forceful, urgent song that seems designed to lift the kids out of their boredom.
The next few songs (“Wasted Hours” “Deep Blue” “We Used To Wait”) are much like “The Suburbs,” though the latter pops out in the second half. “Sprawl” and “Sprawl II” stand out. The first is a slow breakup that turns into a confrontation with the cops. The second is a Regine track, a surprising album standout that actually sounds a little bit like Siouxsie and the Banshees, where a keyboard laying down an arpeggiated melody and electronic strings under her high vocal.
The road trip ends back at another take on “The Suburbs.” It’s impressive to hear the different ways they’re working out their themes here. The songs blend into each other, sometimes one will abruptly change in the middle, there are Tom Petty-style rockers mixed in with more electronic pop songs (in that same NPR interview they said Neil Young crossed with Depeche Mode). As with the multiple album covers, Arcade Fire want to try multiple takes and versions, and don’t want to compromise. That’s good and bad: while the album may not drag, it does hit a long stretch of sameness on the second half. “Sprawl II” makes it worth the trip though. “If I could have it back/All the time that we wasted/I would only waste it again,” the Butlers whisper at the end, reminding us that even the wasted moments are important.
The Suburbs is out 8/2 in the UK and 8/2 in the US via Merge/Canada via AF’s Sonovox label.