Album review: Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’

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In “We Used to Wait,” a restlessly mutating song deep in the recesses of the Arcade Fire’s ambitious new album, “The Suburbs,” Win Butler sings about a time when handwritten letters were the norm, and we waited for correspondences to wend their way through the postal system.

But Butler, the lead singer and principal lyricist for the Quebecois band, isn’t nostalgic by practice. “By the time we met,” he admits, “the times had already changed. So I never wrote a letter. I never took my true heart. I never wrote it down.” Later he says he will do these things, but it’s safe to file that under “the broken promises we make to ourselves in the instant gratification age.” Sure, and less time on Facebook as well, right?

One promise that the Arcade Fire keeps is crafting an old-fashioned, back-to-front exploration of one topic. In this case, it’s suburbia, the album’s most immediate symbol of complacency. But Arcade Fire’s third album doesn’t seek to condemn; the band knows that whether in a city — its Montreal or here in Los Angeles — or a subdivision outside Houston, (where Butler grew up), we’re all grasping for meaning. We’re searching in the shadows of the shopping malls that singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne observes endlessly rising in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

Claiming seven members, though often swelling to more in a live setting, Arcade Fire first gained recognition in indie circles with its 2004 debut, “Funeral,” which established its talent for combining the symphonic with a certain wiry punk agility. By the time its follow-up, “Neon Bible,” landed in 2007, Arcade Fire was headlining venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, where it first played in 2005 with admirer David Byrne.


Arcade Fire tends to cleave to singular concepts, wrenching elaborate but intimate orchestrations from both the big strokes and nuances, but on its previous efforts, the results were sometimes too pristinely chilled on art-rock ice.

Occasionally, the band gets trapped in the same frost on “The Suburbs,” but the moments when it strikes warmth are some of the best of its career. Arcade Fire seems to have borrowed ideas from such bards of the wasteland as Bruce Springsteen. And while they don’t fashion songs with the immediate hit potency as “Dancing in the Dark,” the band members find a way to tap into the same approachable frustration and tenderness.

“Modern Man” is an impeccable showcase, a mature, controlled song that features a vision of the so-called Modern Man waiting in line, going nowhere, bothered by some ineffable sense of opportunity unfulfilled. It’s underscored by rough, cottony guitars that almost occlude the song’s chillier synth effects.

In one of the record’s many wonders of sequencing — a lost art in the download age resurrected on “The Suburbs” — “Modern Man” is followed by “Rococo,” a resplendent epic wound up by near-hysterical strings that encases one of the album’s trickiest sentiments: Making fun of the modern kids. It’s hard to tell if Butler was once one of them or not. Is it a swipe at what he knows all too well, or is he simply casting disparagements? Either way, Butler sounds angry. He nearly spits out the word “rococo,” as if the fanciful living rooms of old — picture the Draper household in “Mad Men” — will explode into flames from his very force.

A kind of meta-commentary is used to brilliant effect throughout the album. As much as “The Suburbs” seems to be a stubborn reinforcement of the pleasures of a complete, multi-song work of art, it also critiques the very impatience that resulted in listeners abandoning the album format. In “We Used to Wait,” he sings, “we used to wait for it, now we’re screaming, ‘sing the chorus again.’ “ In “Suburban War,” Butler laments that “music divides us into tribes,” though his band, first crowned by cool-arbiter Pitchfork for its debut, has benefited from such tribalization as much as anyone.

Beyond the lyrics, the musical inspiration suggests a certain amount of nostalgia as well. There are Springsteen and Neil Young, but they mine the ’80s and ’90s as well, shuffling in the synths and pulsing dance beats of New Order and Depeche Mode.

Bloat, however, occupies “The Suburbs” just as it does Orange County. The album inevitably sprawls too far; a few songs could have been sacrificed without losing the central conceit. “Sprawl I” is uncomfortably maudlin, and “The Suburbs (continued)” only unmoors the complicated emotional balance of the title track.

All the same, “The Suburbs” is an accomplished love letter that radiates affection as much as bitterness. Don’t forget the album, they seem to urge, the slow read, the long stretch of night uninterrupted by e-mail or text messages. In doing so, Arcade Fire offers “hope that something pure can last.”

— Margaret Wappler

Arcade Fire
“The Suburbs”
(Merge Records)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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