Album Review

Matthew Malloy
The narrative arc of the Arcade Fire’s recorded material nicely mirrors the life path of many its fans, though this wasn’t necessarily clear until their third album, The Suburbs, dropped a few weeks ago. Funeral, released in 2004, found Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s cast of characters straining against the confines of their conventional community, yearning to move on to something bigger. It is an album that, at time, treated small failures to the kind of sonic catharsis befitting serious tragedy. This is one of the virtues of the album, and a reason why people connected so deeply with it; when you’re young and vulnerable, these micro-tragedies do feel like life-altering catastrophes. 2007’s Neon Bible finds these same people, now in the early stages of adulthood, straining against the macrostructures of State, Church, and Media. The righteous indignation and, at times, pedantic lyrical turns on the album express textbook sentiments of early adulthood. The Suburbs returns to some of the Arcade Fire’s generative themes. This time around, however, having experienced both the fear and freedom that adulthood affords, the characters populating the album must reconcile the realized demands of modernity with the idealized escape yearned for on Funeral.

Sonically, The Suburbs is different, at times significantly so, from its predecessors. The light touch they display on a lot of the material here was hinted at with songs like Funeral’s “Haiti” but almost totally abandoned on Neon Bible. In large part, the roiling rhythms, slow builds, and cathartic releases of the past two albums are absent on The Suburbs. Replacing them are tuneful, streamlined songs that make it clear that Win Butler has come into his own as a songwriter. No longer is an anthemic chorus the signifier of a great song for the Arcade Fire. This is clearly exemplified in “Modern Man,” a four and a half minute meditation on the nameless, passionless holding pattern adulthood in the suburbs can feel like at times. The song rests almost exclusively on drummer Jeremy Gara’s shifting beat (reminiscent of the skipping record referenced in the lyrics, perhaps), the mildly distorted strum/chug of a guitar, and Win Butler’s voice. This is a long way from the kind of sonic density that was once the Arcade Fire’s calling card, and it works perfectly. The song doesn’t have to be big to express a big idea.

The biggest sonic departure, however, comes near the end of the record on “Sprawl II.” The four-on-the-floor beat, confident lead vocal of Chassagne, and gorgeous synth lines and washes make this a rather incongruous entry in the Arcade Fire cannon, but also one of the best. The Arcade Fire’s aesthetic has always been a bit antiquarian, what with the Depression-era migrant dress code and the use of arcane instruments (hurdy-gurdy, anyone?). “Sprawl II,” however, gives us a totally modern version of the band, displaying an expanded palette that takes them far beyond the constraints of what made them famous in the first place. And in the context of The Suburbs, it works perfectly.

There are definitely still moments of vintage Arcade Fire here; “Ready to Start,” “Empty Room,” and the second half of “Suburban War” are perfect distillations of what made fans initially fall for the band. And this is the true brilliance of the album. By setting these songs alongside newer, more mature material, The Suburbs gives us a full portrait of the Arcade Fire’s progress, and in doing so, an opportunity for us to reflect on our own.