The Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs, is their Joshua Tree. They are the hipster U2. Of course, this could mean that in another decade or so they’ll be playing stadiums packed with 40somethings while the young hipsters are doing something else. But that’s ok. Things change. Tastes are fickle. Nothing lasts except memories and nostalgia. In the future, we’ll remember the time we saw Arcade Fire play at the Hollywood Bowl in quaint old 2005, when “Wake Up” galvanized us fresh-out-of-college idealists and gave us something to spur us on in our awkward entrance into adult existence. We’ll remember it with laughter and tears, marveling at how fast the world went from there.
The Suburbs—the complicated, nostalgic, thoroughly concept-driven third album from Montreal’s resident indie rock royalty—is a monumental collection of epic songs that after a few listens reveals itself to be undoubtedly the best album of the year so far. It’s an album that embodies growth both as a concept (aging, growing out of certain things) and as an artistic process (the sound of the album, described recently as “stadium glo-fi,” builds on the band’s baroque tendencies, adds some synthesizers, and with every note declares the future of rock to be upon us). Almost all of these songs are of the “arena rock / to the rafters” variety—generational anthems that seethe with passion, anger, regret, and hope. It’s what Arcade Fire does. But this album does it better than ever.
The Suburbs, though not a “concept album” per se, is cohesive and literate in ways few albums are any more. Each of its 16 tracks (neatly divided into two 8-song halves) follows smoothly and deliberately from the previous one, with repeated words and phrases (and ideas) that tie things together. “Modern Man,” a catchy song about the drone-like, waiting-in-line-for-a-number routine of middle class adulthood, is immediately followed by “Rococo,” which describes “modern kids” who loiter downtown and use big words they don’t understand. Thematic phrases like “they built the road then they built the town” or “In the suburbs I learned to drive” are repeated in multiple songs. Images and motifs like cars, highways, pavement, writing letters, bike-riding, World War 3, and the snobby hubris of youth (“Month of May”… Arms folded tight!) give the album its own distinctive voice.
Arcade Fire is a band that always creates music at once personal and universal, capturing resonant emotions and truth even in the most personal, cryptic packaging. With The Suburbs, frontman Win Butler revisits the Texas locales of his youth with brother/bandmate William (they grew up in the suburbs of Houston). There, they take nighttime, Lynchian bikerides through the neighborhoods of their memory, searching for that most elusive bit of Americana: Home.
Arcade Fire knows they are something of an iconic voice for the hipster culture, and with this album they take on that culture (including themselves in it, to be sure) with refreshing honesty. “Rococo” critiques hipsters who go around uttering words like “rococo” just to sound cool (funnily enough, I also used “rococo” in my description of the “dilettante hipster” in my book). “Suburban War” describes suburban kids who grow their hair out, rail against their suburban milieu, bolt for a city, and become music snobs. “Wasted Hours” describes kids on a bus in the suburbs, feeling boxed in an longing to be “anywhere but here. But ultimately Butler recognizes that the “war on suburbia” that characterizes hipster culture (and to some extent his own life) is superficial and fleeting. By the time we abandon the suburbs and move to the city as grown ups, we begin to long for the suburbs again, recognizing that it wasn’t necessarily the hell we felt it to be as adolescents. Our childhood days in the suburbs, before the cities opened our eyes to the world, were not just “wasted hours” but rather days to be cherished. Butler closes the album with this sentiment: If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.
In many ways, The Suburbs is an album about the very human longing to always be elsewhere. The grass is always greener on the other side. We always want what’s next. The album uses the metaphor of America and its obsession with movement, manifest destiny and “highways before cities” sprawl to get at a deeper cultural (existential?) value: wanting more. Industry. Progress. Development. Real Estate. The album tells a history of growing up in a brutally fast world, the age of computers and Y2K (“Deep Blue”). In “We Used to Wait,” Butler sings about how we used to wait on snail-mail letters to come to the physical mailbox, happy to do so and gleefully unaware that one day we’d call it “snail mail.” Sings Butler: Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last.
Here the album’s key tension—between our innate drive to want to build, move, and experience “the new” on one hand and the pesky, ineffable tug of permanence and safety on the other—begins to reveal itself. A key song (and one of the album’s best tracks) is “City With No Children,” which offers a scathing critique of the comforts and protections of suburbia (Never trust a millionaire / Quoting the Sermon on the Mount) but also laments the downsides of urban life (I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it).
Another key song—and the album’s best—is “Half Light II (No Celebration).” Musically, thematically, emotionally… this is the climax of the album. Following the gorgeous orchestral conclusion of “Half Light I,” its sequel begins with throbbing, warbly synth and white noise, and the apocalyptic line Now that San Francisco’s gone / I guess I’ll just pack it in / Wanna wash away my sins / In the presence of my friends … The song—which includes imagery of driving away from cities crumbling and “paying the cost” of markets crashing—soars to a stunning climax of impassioned lament as Butler sings of the interminable process of change: One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone.
Not to be outdone, Butler’s wife/bandmate Regine has her own epic moment in the sun with the album’s penultimate song, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a hopeful, rollicking, roll-down-your-windows-and-turn-up-the-volume jam about seeing the city lights from the suburbs and believing in your dreams. It’s the sort of song that makes you think, “really? 15 songs in and we’re still getting hit with explosive classics like this??”
But The Suburbs is this sort of album. It makes you smile, sing, laugh, cry, and feel part of something. It’s grandiose and intimate, soothing and unsettling, retro and progressive and effortlessly “of the moment.” An album of our times? Yes. One that will resonate in our stadiums in ten years when we are parents and professionals, unsure of what the kids are listening to? Probably. One that will outlive the fads, ephemera, and strip mall superhighways of tomorrow’s industry? Maybe. But I have my doubts. I have my doubts about it.