The Arcade Fire is one of the most indefensible bands in rock right now. If a detractor says they don't like the band because their music seems overly self-important, there's little in their arsenal to prove that detractor wrong. A same lack of plausible defense is apparent when people criticize the band's early U2-like earnestness or their incessant tendencies to strive to make grand statements.
To be a fan of the Arcade Fire means accepting everything that detractors make fun of. If you're a fan, no doubt you're rewarded for putting up with many of the Arcade Fire's excesses. However, most non-die-hard fans have their breaking point. My breaking point came this summer when I heard the band was making a quasi-concept album about one of the most overdone themes in pop culture: the suburbs.
Tim Burton gently tweaked the suburbs with the cookie-cutter houses in Edward Scissorhands, Sam Mendes expertly nailed the lifestyle in his masterpiece American Beauty, and Jonathan Franzen just released a great book documenting that institution's affect on a family with Freedom. This doesn't include the thousands of songs, music, works of arts and books that have dealt with the suburbs since the end of World War II. What more could be written about this existence? More importantly, isn't it slightly callous to bemoan how soul-draining the suburbs are when tens of thousands of families are right now concerned with keeping those very homes out of foreclosure?
Frontman Win Butler wisely steers clear of outright damning the lifestyle that likely 90 percent of the band's fanbase grew up with. Instead, the suburbs turn into something as complex as a family member throughout the 63-minute album. In the massively catchy "Sprawl II," Regine Chassagne thinks aloud whether we can ever get away from the every-present "sprawl." However, Butler also sings about living in the opposite of suburbia and in a massive metropolis devoid of the close interactions typified by suburbia in "City With No Children."
In addition to a generalized theme of the suburbs, the album also touches on the pains of early adulthood. An already running joke about the album is how often "the kids" get mentioned – in "Month Of May," Butler laments how the younger generation can start a revolution when they're standing "with their arms folded tight." In the song that features arguably the worst chorus in the band's catalog, Butler chastises "the modern kids" for "using words that they don't understand." The song would have been affecting had Butler chose a better chorus than singing "Rococo" at the top of his lungs.
If this seems overly posturing, well, it is. But if you're willing to embrace the band's enthusiasm, then I challenge anyone to listen to "Suburban War" and not feel for Butler when he sings "all my old friends, they don't know me know." It's the sound of a man who suddenly finds himself entering the responsibilities of adulthood, but still wanting to hold on to his youth.
The Suburbs tackles the big themes, but what about the music? Critics have so far been enthusiastic, even a few dropping the "masterpiece" label. However, too many songs on The Suburbs succumb to a sameness sound that killed the momentum of their last album Neon Bible. The Suburbs is more focused than their last album, and contains a stronger overall collection of songs, but it also contains fewer peaks. The amazing one-two punch of puffed-chest indignation and Springsteen escapism of "Black Mirror" and "Keep The Car Running" is replaced with a series of really good songs. But what else would you expect from a grown-up album?
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