Win Butler has a heart like a wheel, and with Arcade Fire’s third studio effort, has taken his and the celebrated Montreal septet’s wanderlust to the street where you live. Like the Houston neighborhood of Butler’s childhood that inspired it, The Suburbs is a quietly devastating and infinitely gracious mid-tempo rhapsody in beige. The complacency, disappointment and dreams deferred as universally shared experience for millions who called those planned, winding streets and cul-de-sacs home. We learned to ride a bike and drive a car in the same ways: without training wheels, and without faith in much other than our own private illusions of safety. The Suburbs unfurls as the years go by, as we slowly realize we’re not getting out alive unless we try. But trying is hard and requires the energy the suburbs zap from us like another backyard BBQ on a hot July day.

The Suburbs opens a door that leads to a lifetime lived within a house’s walls and the eggshell memories we’d love to repress and doesn’t slam it and skulk away. A prison where we were sentenced to watch the rest of the world go by, where our sentence was a birthright, a journey and a destination. Fin. For others it’s an oasis of evergreen splendor where families live close by and neighbors know each other. Where the lack of skyscrapers and cultural scene is a non-issue next to the opening of a new Publix or Walmart. Feast or famine.

Throughout the course of the respectfully reflective 16 songs that recall Springsteen’s knack for storytelling and rousing melody, the experience of living in the suburbs is laid bare: the claustrophobia of longing to escape to some idealized vision of Somewhere without the keys to get there, all the while living in Utopia. The hat trick Arcade Fire pulls off is their ability to not render judgment in either direction, because the inner battle one has with the suburbs is not as easy as “should I stay or should I go?” There are commitments. There is Grandma. There are christenings and weddings. There’s all your friends and your first love.

“Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling,” Butler sings on the elegant album opener and saloony title track. It’s an ultra-poignant moment, painfully so, especially if nostalgia for the idea of “home” and escaping tree-lined, strip-mall boredom and what they meant to you growing up is like cayenne pepper in your eye. The delicate, heart-wrenching mental scrapbooking continues with the post-punk urgency of “Ready to Start,” “Wasted Hours” (“Wishing we were anywhere but here. Watch the life you’re living disappear. We’re still kids… yearning to be free”), and “We Used to Wait” with its recounting of a romantic pen pal, and Butler musing, “It’s amazing how something so small can keep you alive.”

Further down the leafy danger zones of status quo are the ruminations of “Modern Man” and fear of being old-fashioned in a light-speed world, “Rococo” with its contempt for the cool kids who use arbitrary “big words they don’t understand,” and the plight of “City of No Children” with its talk of mansions and mortgages as prison over procreation. The album’s masterstroke, however, is at the end. Butler’s wife Régine Chassagne takes over lead vox on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a flawless ABBA-esque disco romp that paints shopping centers as the main structures as far as the eye can see, and the surrender of ambition, as she sings, “They heard me singin’ and they told me stop. Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.”

The Suburbs and its allegorical and evanescent tones of home are going to be a deeply felt listening experience for years to come. In stark contrast to political and religious polemics a la 2007’s Neon Bible, Arcade Fire has perhaps done something more important this time out with an unflinching, resonant celebration, discussion and indictment of the competing doorknockers, flower beds, mailboxes and vinyl-sided quicksand of our lives. Rooftop to the basement, banality has never seemed so tragically romantic. (Merge) –Carrie Alison

 
  1. Awesome review Carrie, thank you!

    [Reply]

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