More than the Grammy for best album, the critical accolades, and the commercial success, it’s the wide array of responses The Suburbs has elicited that offers the greatest testament to how vital it remains a year after its initial release, inspiring everything from undying adulation to grudging respect to thoughtful contemplation to knee-jerk backlash. Some might think of it as a grand narrative concept album, while others hear a call-to-arms against the complacency of middle-class life. And even those who might be more skeptical of Arcade Fire and its work would have to admit that The Suburbs is an ambitious, if sometimes incoherent, endeavor by an outfit that always puts in an honest effort.
Indeed, The Suburbs sounds as vibrant and compelling today as it did when it first came out, the songs still energetic and its themes remaining open to debate and interpretation. So The Suburbs might raise more questions than pat answers, but that might be why this album is one that’s worth going back to over and over again: Is The Suburbs a condemnation of middle America or a sympathetic account of it that’s tinged with mixed feelings and nostalgia? Is the world created in The Suburbs a sustained critique of our own or some kind of allegorical cautionary tale or simply a figment of the band’s overactive imagination? And above all, what exactly is Arcade Fire fighting against and fighting for? If you take Win Butler at his word when he explains that the album “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs—it’s a letter from the suburbs,” then it’s up to each listener to decide what the uptake is, depending on where you’re coming from on where you come from.
With that in mind, the original version of The Suburbs seems to be complete enough in and of itself that it doesn’t need any tinkering, even if it’s hard to begrudge the Montreal art-rock collective for taking a well-deserved victory lap. Appending two unreleased songs, an expanded version of an earlier track, and a short film by Spike Jonze based on the album, The Suburbs Deluxe Edition ends up being a case of subtraction by addition, when providing more material and new context takes a little bit away from what was already a winning formula. A minor quibble has to do with the sequencing of the reissue, which tacks on the two new numbers—the jaunty “Culture War” and the David Byrne collaboration “Speaking in Tongues”—on the back end. While both definitely fit the sensibility of the album, they break up the formal unity and cyclical structure of The Suburbs 1.0, which closed to a hushed, dream-like redux of the opening title track. As a result, “The Suburbs (continued)” becomes somewhat irrelevant and the album as a whole doesn’t leave you on the same haunting, ethereal note.
But more than just changing the ending of a story that worked well to begin with, the additional offerings—particularly the Spike Jonze-directed short, Scenes from the Suburbs—alter the tone of The Suburbs’ narrative and how it might be appreciated. So even if Butler claims that the album is neither an ode to the suburbs nor a screed against them, the dark, intense video accompanying it definitely suggests that Arcade Fire’s message leans heavily towards the latter possibility. In effect, the film finds Arcade Fire choosing, out of all the interpretations it could’ve pursued in representing The Suburbs and the suburbs, the path of least resistance, indulging in a puzzling pessimism that brings down both the mystique and spirit of the album a notch.
With Butler’s narration setting the scene for a suburban dystopia where homeowner’s associations duke it out over shopping mall light pollution and the footprints of golf courses, Arcade Fire comes off more heavy-handed and dogmatic in the film than its empathetic music ever does. On the whole, the imagery is over-the-top and the symbolism clichéd, visualizing cookie-cutter subdevelopments surrounded by barbed-wire fences in place of wrought-iron gates, being patrolled by paramilitary forces rather than rent-a-cops. Sure, the idea is to make this alternate reality appear as alienated and grim as possible, but there’s nothing in the film that offers much of a glimmer of hope or something to believe in against all odds, which you’d typically think of as Arcade Fire’s raison d’être.
It’s just that the gloom and doom get to be too oppressive—the most you get from Scenes is that it conveys the awkwardness and confusion that go hand in hand with coming of age, except there’s no future or chance of outgrowing your lot in life to look forward to. Certainly, the dialogue doesn’t provide a way out or even mere solace: Mostly, the script is full of emotionally distant, uncomfortable scenes, particularly when the teen protagonist Kyle is asked to defend humanity and comes up with the stilted response, “Well, we’re all humans and I like humans, so…” And what’s all the more bleak about Arcade Fire’s vision is that the prelapsarian halcyon days here seem more banal than poignant, since it’s mostly getting nostalgic about summer-break ennui, rite-of-passage house parties, and stoner jokes making fun of Asian names.
So the main problem with Scenes from the Suburbs and its relationship to how you might reinterpret the much richer and more complex album is that it tends to highlight those qualities of the band that its critics harp on, namely that Arcade Fire takes itself too seriously, to the point that its sincerity verges on sanctimony. Indeed, what’s most striking about the film isn’t even the martial imagery and the beat-you-over-the-head analogy between the suburbs and a virtual prison, but, rather, what’s missing: any sense of levity and humor. Maybe you wouldn’t expect Scenes to be a knee-slapper like Jonze’s name-making videos for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” or Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”, but you might anticipate at least a sly smile here and there à la his take on Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” or a smidgen of absurd fun along the lines of the clip for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”. Of course, that’s not really Arcade Fire’s thing and it might not be fair to expect the group to be something that it’s not, but something to balance out the overbearing images of physical violence, heavy artillery, and border checkpoints wouldn’t hurt. If there’s a whiff of even gallows humor, it’s hard to detect.
All in all, the film reveals a fundamental irony about Arcade Fire, that a band that sounds so joyful and uplifting musically can be so gloomy and down-in-the-dumps in its outlook on life and society. After watching Scenes, you can’t help but reassess The Suburbs and wonder whether the songs you thought were inspiring anthems are essentially bitter screeds. Yeah, there are a few mean-spirited, brow-beating numbers that have always seemed out of place on The Suburbs, like when Arcade Fire picks on the sitting-duck target of soul-sucking businessmen on “Ready to Start” and when it not-so-generously caricatures urban hipsters on “Rococo”. But in light of Scenes, the songs about war feel more tortured and unconvincing than they originally did, especially the introspective ballad “Suburban War”, which makes its main conceit even more confusing by going on a non-sequitur about how “music divides us into tribes.” Likewise, the connections Arcade Fire tries to make on the new track “Culture War” come off less like profound musings than scatterbrained ramblings, pointing to the divisive politics of “the southern strategy” here and announcing that “we’re soldiers now in the culture war” there.
Such reflection can cut both ways, though, since it also helps identify what pieces stand up to scrutiny and the test of time. There are enough rip-roaring anthems that make Arcade Fire’s middle-class existentialism go down easy, like the jittery baroque rock of “Empty Room” and us-versus-them rallying cry of “Month of May”. And more often than not, the message and tone go hand-in-hand on The Suburbs, like the way the title track uses a ragtime-y bounce and gently soaring guitars to evoke how the remembrance of things past can be both better and worse than what actually happened. In contrast to the overwhelming dreariness and overwrought symbolism of the short film, Arcade Fire, at least musically speaking, sure has a knack for the subtleties of sentimentality, considering how the group painstakingly renders golden memories on the yearning “City with No Children” and the ambivalently nostalgic “Wasted Hours”. The latter, remade with an extended jam of rousing, shuffling guitars, finds Arcade Fire at its most touching and complex at the same time, as Butler isn’t so much searching for easy answers as he is describing what it’s like to keep on keeping on in the suburbs.
So while the deluxe version of The Suburbs might not actually do the original justice, it does give a better idea of Arcade Fire’s strengths and weaknesses, its ambitions and accomplishments. Indeed, the best sense of where Arcade Fire is at artistically is reflected in one of the tricked-out edition’s bonus tracks, “Speaking in Tongues”: With David Byrne guesting on a track that’s an homage to Talking Heads, at least in spirit, “Speaking in Tongues” hints that The Suburbs might be Arcade Fire’s attempt at making its own More Songs About Buildings and Food and that classic album’s panoramic view of this American life, from the cities to the suburbs. So while “Speaking in Tongues”, like much of The Suburbs, has an urgent melodicism and earnest feeling to its credit, namechecking Talking Heads only highlights where Arcade Fire comes up a little short by comparison. More than the trenchant and cutting observations of middle-class culture that Buildings and Food put forward, what rings loud and clear about it even to this day is how Talking Heads combined a sharp critical eye with artistic bravado and a sense of humor that’s equal parts witty and sympathetic. In the case of The Suburbs, hitting two out of those three marks ain’t bad, but it also goes to show that the grown-up kids in Arcade Fire, even at the height of their creative powers and popularity, still have room to grow and some ways to go to fulfill their vast potential as storytellers, social critics, and songwriters.
// Notes from the Road
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