When Arcade Fire’s Funeral came out in 2004, it took me several listens to appreciate it and several more to love it. I never had the same adoration for Neon Bible, but the final track on that album made my body a cage for three years as I waited for the Montreal based band’s next effort. The Suburbs has blown me away.
I immediately liked the sound of a lot of the songs, but it wasn’t until I sat in isolated contemplation with the lyrics that I fully grasped the masterpiece of this story of the suburban war. The 16 tracks are focused on key words (suburbs, kids, modern, shadow of your song, sprawl) making the album feel more like a work of literature than a pop endeavour. I have complained, in previous reviews, about the inability of bands to write a solid full album. The Suburbs proves that it is still possible…even if it takes three years to produce.
To warn you though: once you pay attention to the work as a whole, The Suburbs is intense. It paints a dark, futuristic world (that is actually the present) where cities have wiped out our ability to enjoy anything natural. It doesn’t even have a positive solution at the end. It just shows us where we are heading (or where we are) and leaves it up to us to fix things. It’s not the kind of album that I’d throw on any old time. It’s best listened to as an activity in and of itself.
Track by Track Summary and Analysis:
1. The Suburbs – The opening lines, referencing learning to drive, tie back to the final track on Funeral: another album stating our social decay. We are told that a suburban war is coming (and will on track 9) which makes this song an effective prologue to the album. It establishes the themes and some key words, but also stands well on its own with this haunting request: “So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I want to hold her hand. Show her some beauty before this damage is done. But if it’s too much to ask. If it’s too much to ask. Then send me a son.”
2. Ready to Start – Essentially chapter one, the story is now ready to start with this more energetic tune. It points out how we’d often rather bow down to someone we don’t respect rather than be alone, but the narrator rejects this and “would rather be alone than pretend I feel alright”. This track also introduces the recurring theme of a song that acts as a villain to the album (as hero): “I would rather be wrong than live in the shadow of your song”. It will come back later. “My mind is open wide and now I’m ready to start”. Be ready to listen.
3. Modern Man – One of the weaker tracks musically, but it introduces the topic of modernity and the “modern man’s” inability to express himself in a ticking-clock world. Even in his dreams the modern man is pulled aside and forced to wait in line.
4. Rococo – The narrator is terrified by the chilling song sung by the “modern kids” which repeats the word “rococo” over and over. Rococo means elaborate or decorative; the kids are “using big words that they don’t understand.” The modern kids are a combination of themes from the preceding tracks and pretty much everything is now set up to take us on a psychological journey through the sprawl of the suburbs. Regine’s backup vocals alongside the violins are beautiful and the concept of “build it up just to burn it back down” is reminiscent of “Wake Up”, the best song on Funeral. The kids are so confused: “they want to own you but don’t know what game they’re playing.”
5. Empty Room – Mmm more violins and guitars! Not as rocking as Funeral’s “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)”, but still! Regine’s voice is prominent with Win singing backup. Lyrical highlights include “My life is coming but I don’t know when” and the almost indiscernible French at the end: “Toute ma vie est avec toi. Moi j’attends, toi tu pars” (All my life is with you. Me, I wait. You, you leave. [my attempted translation…right, oui? Any subtleties or idiom I’m missing?])
6. City With No Children – The narrator finds himself in a city with no children in it, comparable to “a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison.” The song also asks: can righteousness pay interest on your debt?
7. Half Light I – I do enjoy the imagery of border states, and apparently the half-light of dusk / dawn made an impression on Arcade Fire. In the half-light, objects are obscured and it creates not only a new way of literally seeing things, but also a new way of thinking about them. People can’t even recognise each other. The song is one of the most metaphor laden: “running through streets with houses that hide so much: they hide the ocean in a shell”, “our heads are like houses with no windows”, “we are not asleep, we are in the street.” Despite its independent strength, it really acts as an intro to the second half:
8. Half Light II (No Celebration) – San Francisco’s gone. Win said in an interview that it was about moving from California to Houston, but I prefer a more cultural interpretation of San Fran being reduced to less than it used to be. “Wash away my sins in the presence of my friends”, “head east, even in half-light something has to give”, “they’re afraid to pay the cost for what we lost”, “pray to God I won’t see the death of everything that’s wild”, “in this town where I was born I now see through a dead man’s eyes”. “One day they’ll see it’s long gone”. But too late.
9. Suburban War – The centrepiece of the album begins with the image of a town built to change that rearranges itself while the narrator sleeps. The war against the suburbs brings the idea that “music divides us into tribes. You grew your hair so I grew mine.” The villain-song is mentioned again—“Living in the shadow of your song”—as is learning to drive (see track 1). After being told we need to choose sides a tribal drum beat kicks in, dividing all “my old friends: they don’t know me. All my old friends wait”… (for?)
10. Month of May – The weakest track for me. Its attempted aggression falls flat. I’m not sure if the month of May is symbolic in some way or just has autobiographical relevance to Win and Will Butler. But it would probably be fun to jump around to this song at a concert.
11. Wasted Hours – A drastic slowdown into a chill groove and “lalala” chorus from Regine. The theme of wasting hours “staring out of us bus windows longing to be free” becomes important later. A look at the liner notes reveals that the song is missing a response to the question: “What was that line you said?” The notes then read: “Something about how our time it owns us now” but Win doesn’t sing it. A cool find methinks.
12. Deep Blue – The villain-song is finally revealed. It’s a song heard from a passing car with simple “lalalala” lyrics that serves as the chorus to “Deep Blue”. The signs of the end were in the suburbs before the end was seen on TV (when the computer Deep Blue defeated chess-champion Garry Kasparov in 1996). Living in the shadow of lalala is the opposite of hearing the rococo song. Simplicity vs. Elaborate. Neither of them are desired it seems. The song ends with these important messages: “Hey, put the cellphone down for a while… put the laptop down, there is something wild, I feel it, it’s leaving me…lalala”. Quite the statement as I am writing this on my netbook…checking my cellphone …listening to the album on my iPod Touch.
13. We Used to Wait – Building off the last song, “We Used to Wait” shows how we’ve drifted away from writing letters and paying attention to our “true heart”. Synthesisers enter to prove the point that “times are changing fast”. This song has the second concept of wasting time, which is framed positively: the time spent in the wild with nature. But now “when the lights cut out, I was lost in the wilderness downtown”. The careful musical pacing picks up on the “but now” clauses when the narrator decides “I’m gonna write” (like a patient who wants to walk again). The final chorus set is a tongue-in-cheek slap in the face for we, the impatient: “We used to wait for it, but now we’re screaming sing the chorus again” There is no patience anymore, so Arcade Fire makes us wait for it … and then doesn’t sing it again. Fading piano lulls into:
14. Sprawl I (Flatland) – The best pair of songs on The Suburbs. “Sprawl I” features Win returning to the suburban sprawl of his unrecognisable hometown: one of those town built to change (see track 9). Eerie strings appear when cops, the Last Defenders of the Sprawl, interrogate him (as a kid) on his bike. The narrator is searching desperately for home in this sorrowful setup for:
15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – Regine sings this upbeat track over heavy synths. More technology taking over…but damn it sounds good! Of course, she is praising the natural amid the techno beats. She’s told to stop singing: quit it and punch the clock. “Please cut the lights!” she begs. She wants simple romanticised moments (like kissing on swing sets), but they are ruined when she has to run from cops without really knowing why.
16. The Suburbs (Continued) – The epilogue repeats lines from the rest of the work and is willing to repeat the wasted time: “If I had the time back I wasted, I’d only waste it again”. The good wasting? The bad? For an album with 16 tracks all on a single theme, it leaves much unsaid. It’s up to us to decide how to deal and live with the music of The Suburbs.
If you like good music.