Last year’s war of words between the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Arcade Fire front man Win Butler was, at the time, an enjoyable diversion. Although Coyne’s comments (about what he perceived as arrogance in Butler’s crew) seemed somewhat impolite and petty, the flare-up between the two acts injected some energy and fun into a modern rock scene that is too often stuffy and image-conscious. Butler responded, Coyne apologized then retracted his apology, and finally the whole affair died down. Both bands continued to sell records and make money.
Recently, I received Arcade Fire’s latest album The Suburbs and listened closely and repeatedly to its hour of malaise. Suddenly, the conflict between Coyne and Butler didn’t seem so inconsequential, but rather relevant and perfectly understandable. Coyne is an eternally youthful figure fronting a band that, decades into its career, all but demands participation, energy and joy from listeners and fans. Butler is an intense, brooding 30-year-old who received unparalleled acclaim right out of the gate, but for some reason seems increasingly remote and filled with angst. If Coyne experienced first-hand even a small dose of the dissatisfaction that permeates The Suburbs, then it stands to reason that he found the attitude off-putting. The two worldviews have very little in common.
In fairness, there is no “correct” way to react to success, and Butler has every right to grow into whomever he pleases as an individual, songwriter and performer. Not to mention that if we evaluated albums based on band members’ personalities, several rock gods would topple into mere mortals at best. Yet when those personalities start to actively shape the direction of a discography, then the music does — at least in part — succeed or fail as a result of that attitudinal investment.
Arcade Fire’s Funeral was a deservedly lauded debut. To this day, the album sounds like the work of a surprisingly well-seasoned and articulate (if not totally original) young band. If there was a single concept that linked the songs of Funeral, it could probably be described as putting away childish things — a perspective that makes the album an enduring work. On Funeral, Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the rest of the large, talented band explored the transition points between life and death, youth and adulthood, love and loss, and several other weighty themes. Although these were exceedingly audacious subjects to confront on a debut album, the band succeeded through a survey of prettily orchestrated pop/rock styles and uncomplicated, unselfconscious emotional appeal in both songcraft and lyrics. Follow-up Neon Bible was a musically expansive, but lyrically cold and angry album, perhaps an early sign of the band’s attempt to fulfill its press-ordained status as makers of Serious Music.
The Suburbs is album number three, and follows not only the grim theatrics of Neon Bible, but also Arcade Fire’s transformation into an overtly political act, rallying voters for President Obama. Pop music and politics have a tendency to compromise one another, but the band’s attention to charitable giving is admirable, and suggests that its activism and concern go beyond a single candidate, and indeed, beyond mere politics.
However, as much as the band seems to be taking ownership of certain values and issues that affect the world, The Suburbs lacks such sophistication. This is not a problem in and of itself. There are plenty of worthwhile dumb rock albums. Rock needn’t be serious. Yet The Suburbs’ humorless, myopic critique of modern youth and suburban life is too empty a concept to sustain a 16-track album, and the band makes a big misstep by overestimating the impact of Butler’s musings, which here consist of repeated (but not varied) thoughts about learning to drive, unimpressed kids, and a vague “suburban war”.
Is there something stifling about suburban, middle-class life? In the past, pop music has answered this question in the affirmative, suggesting that more money leads to more problems, that we’ll regret paving paradise, and that “the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth”. Listeners could have arrived at these conclusions independent of Biggie, Joni, and Geddy, but sometimes a song’s best purpose is to creatively direct our attention onto things of which we are already intuitively aware. The Suburbs offers several observations comparable to the ones above but fails to combine them with a greater mixture of moods and topics. No writer owns the subject matter of suburban ennui, but to convey it without innovation and intensity of effect is to, ironically, risk the kind of indifferent reaction that forms the subject matter of the songs. Dreary complaints about boredom result in boredom.
What causes Butler to sound nearly as pained as Maskull in these songs? In the title track, he seems mainly concerned with preserving the wild part of youth, characterized by “screaming and running through the yard” rather than trying to “be hard”. These lyrics and several others throughout the album share a kinship with Where the Wild Things Are. Lyrically, “The Suburbs” expresses some interesting images/sensations, such as a command to “move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass”. While this creates an understatedly promising entryway for the album, a stasis soon sets in.
For example, “Ready to Start” upbraids modern “kids” for being conformists and conveys a warning from “kids in art school” that businessmen will drink blood. “Month of May” looks with derision on “kids…standing with their arms folded tight”. At the risk of searching too deeply for meaning, just who are these “kids” that appear on The Suburbs? Most of the time, they seem like Butler’s perception or projection of a hip young crowd that probably listens to his music. In that sense, he likely feels caught in the polarity he establishes between kids and businessmen. The weight of impossible expectations on all sides is a promising lyrical theme, but Butler largely sidesteps that conflict and replaces it with indecision and self-centeredness.
“Rococo” is especially misdirected in its criticism of “modern kids” who will “eat right out of your hand”. In this song, Butler is suspicious of the very same wildness he seeks elsewhere: “They seem wild but they are so tame / They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same / They want to own you but they don’t know what game they’re playing.” “Modern Man” saves the first quarter of the album from being exclusively about kids that the singer doesn’t like and/or trust. Although the song’s lyrics are consistent with the stasis theme, they crucially move the singer beyond criticizing others and into a relatable sort of introspection about the intrusion of real life into dreams and goals. The song is also more musically compelling than the other songs on the album’s first quarter. Like Sugar’s “Company Book” reimagined by Ric Ocasek, “Modern Man” is a relaxed song, a world away from the band’s reputation for overblown orchestral arrangements. One pleasant surprise is the shared melody of the vocal and guitar lines. This change of compositional pace throughout the album, sometimes consisting of direct and simple musical pleasures, redeems The Suburbs from the suffocating bloat and redundancy of Butler’s lyrical concept and does a lot to diversify the traditional Arcade Fire sound.
The fifth song on the album, “Empty Room” is where the band’s energy surfaces most excitingly. With the exception of “Modern Man”, the songs that precede “Empty Room” are comparatively lacking in inspiration. In addition to a blast of enlivening Kevin Shields-like guitar action, one major distinguishing factor of the song is the presence of Chassagne’s soaring vocals, which in the past have fit somewhat uncomfortably on Arcade Fire albums. On The Suburbs, however, Chassagne elevates the album practically every time her voice appears.
Chassagne’s supporting vocal turn on the chorus of “City with No Children” lends emotion to an otherwise predictable bass-led number, and yet another song in which Butler’s concept proves to be self-defeating. Although he attempts to implicate himself as a member of a privileged class (and that clearly makes him uncomfortable), the song ends on a self-pitying, rather than confessional note: “I feel like I’ve been living in / A city with no children in it / A garden left for ruin by and by as I hide inside of my private prison.” Compared to the Gnosticism-lite of “My Body Is a Cage” from Neon Bible, “City No Children” is regressive and unimaginative, as if the inner, spiritual existence were wholly dependent on material circumstances.
It becomes apparent that this is the fatal conceptual flaw of the album: Butler sets up “the suburbs” as an unshakeable Aunt Sally, one that will persistently rise in the physical landscape, and therefore within his interior life. Although there are a few moments on the album that do interestingly juxtapose idyllic, more fondly remembered suburban scenes with soul-deadening ones, too much time is spent lingering in inescapability and spiritual darkness.
“Wasted Hours”, a stripped-down song that makes fantastic use of plaintive near-silence in the chorus, finds the singer “Wishing you were anywhere but here / You watch the life you’re living disappear / And now I see / We’re still kids in buses longing to be free.” This creates a poetic enough image, but the sentiment behind it is too adolescent and not convincing, given the band members’ age and experience. In the real world, there are actual kids living amidst inescapable conditions in bad neighborhoods, but none of them are in jet-setting rock bands. Win Butler doubtlessly knows this (see again his commitment to Haiti), but The Suburbs overdramatically expresses the torpor of what is in reality a comfortable lifestyle.
The strongest run of songs on The Suburbs comes in its middle section. Although “Half Light I”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, and “Suburban War” occasionally veer into the self-pitying stance that hurts the album elsewhere, their perspective is overall more mature and balanced. The melodrama in these songs, fueled by winning orchestral pomp, is more appropriately scaled, communicating adventure, ambition and wonder. “Half Light II (No Celebration)” is also notable for its introduction of electronic textures to the band’s arsenal of instruments. This, too, provides a stimulating variation in the band’s sound and pairs well with the strings.
The Suburbs’ connection to Where the Wild Things Are is particularly strong in the middle section of the album. On “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, Butler “pray[s] to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” and follows the prayer with a yelp. Spontaneity of this sort is unfortunately in short supply on The Suburbs. “Suburban War”, which has been foreshadowed from the beginning of the album, seems to acknowledge a competition amongst friends growing apart. Aside from a puzzling bit about how “music divides us into tribes”, the concluding emotional outlook of the song is heartfelt.
After opening up so well in the center, The Suburbs retreats back into mawkish territory for “We Used to Wait”, which fails to take off and the even more lifeless “Sprawl (Flatland)”, which threatens to kill the energy of the album altogether. Even the faintest of pulses would prove energizing after “Sprawl (Flatland)” and the band more than delivers in that regard with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. The lyrics take a far too literal approach in bemoaning suburban sprawl, but Chassagne turns in a totally committed lead vocal performance in the honest-to-goodness disco number. Andrea True Connection is the last place most listeners would expect Arcade Fire to look to for inspiration, but it is that battiness and humor that, along with Chassagne’s energy, give the song staying power.
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is not a song that Arcade Fire should repeat any time soon, but the sense of musical exploration it represents is a virtue indeed. One benefit to being members of a hugely successful band is that no one is forcing them into a rut. Businessmen do not actually intend to drink blood. Sometimes, kids stand with their arms folded. The world is not, after all, one big villainous homeowners’ association. Arcade Fire should continue to seek out the wild. There are plenty of directions for the talented band to take, as well as listeners that will follow — some of whom, believe it or not, lead fulfilling and creative lives in the suburbs.