Merge – 2010
When I think of Arcade Fire I usually think of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, husband-and-wife and two of the most influential collaborators in contemporary rock today. Still, the superband as a whole is roughly made up of seven very talented individuals, quite a cadre of the likes of the New Pornographers. As such, I am often astounded by the level of cogency and cohesiveness in their albums (even in their “weakest” state, the Springsteen-laden Neon Bible), one that seems to defy the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen clause. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire receives a crisper, more upfront studio treatment that serves to bolster their most catching strengths, which have been slightly muddled before (either for better or worse). The upped ante in production (Merge Records) also jostles out some of the glaring histrionics of their previous album, where governmental politicos induce war-struck paranoia and corrupt, Fire-and-Brimstone church leaders impose their ulterior agendas on lobotomized sheep.
The Suburbs actually feels like an existential bookend to Funeral (their 2004 full-length debut) and its unresolved cathartic pain, an album that willingly sank itself deep into the Narnia of suburban adolescence and the endless possibilities therein (how the very ennui of being boxed in by a white picket fence is tantamount to turn a stripling into a 21st century Don Quixote).
As always, I’m enamored with Butler and Chassagne’s fascination with the generic landscapes of suburbia, being that I grew up as a Protestant church-reared suburbanite myself, conditioned by a core coterie of irrational fears akin to mortality, religion, disease, demons, God, Satan, sexuality and the supposed repercussions of embracing individual freedom. The list goes on.
Throughout the duration of the album, I am reminded of two cinematic counterparts: American Beauty (1999) and Little Children (2006). What makes The Suburbs so successful is how it manages to strike a balance between uncomplicated motif and emotional poignancy, just as the two aforementioned films did.
Still, what haunts me most about Arcade Fire’s bittersweet interpretation of suburbia is how they convincingly empathize with my inner bildungsroman. With specificity. With idiographic glances at everyday routine. With a sleight of melancholy. Alluding to universal notions of life, death and love through the sad pinpricks of the mundane (wasted potential, wasted beauty, wasted youth, the breviloquence of time). Butler’s haunting singing voice carries this melancholia along (almost effortlessly) — an amalgam betwixt Neil Young, David Bowie and The Boss Himself.
Yet, underneath the rural anhedonia, what The Suburbs whispers is that your disillusionment is inevitable, and that this is OK.
The musicianship here is almost literally sculpted and painstakingly crafted. It’s a nostalgic, road-trip-friendly, quilted playlist of tight arrangements, characterized by occasionally anthemic choral breaks, fist-pumping picker-uppers (Ready to Start) and teeth-gritting restraint (Rococo). The Suburbs evidences precise control and is cinched together by an unmistakable angst (even in their cheeriest Springsteen-indebted moments [Month of May]), an older breed of the spunk once found in Funeral.
The album also leads me to realize how much I missed Chassagne’s less funereal vocals and the flamboyant charm that results in the music that surrounds them. She regains the distinct and confident presence she had prior to Neon Bible. You see, hubby can sometimes be a little heavy-handed and bleak, especially when subtracted of Régine’s iridescent, Björk-inspired presence and timbre.
They make quite a team, and The Suburbs is quite the 16-track journey because of it. Be sure to listen to it.