Arcade Fire Finds Renewed Inspiration in “The Suburbs”

July 31, 2010 · Print This Article

“All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes… but they bow down to him anyway, ‘cause it’s better than bein’ alone.”

So wails Win Butler on “Ready to Start”, the second track off The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s latest and most epic paean to the ennui of life on The Grid.

Among other things, the lyric seems to be saying that, as children, we have no choice over the place we’re given to grow up, and whether we reject that place or not, we can never truly escape it.

There are a lot of lines like that on The Suburbs.  It is packed with imagery of rebellion and escape that never come to fruition because of apathy, boredom or, perhaps, forces even sadder and more sinister.  It is a reflective record: Funeral from the outside looking in, rather than the inside looking out.

Butler based the lyrics for The Suburbs on memories of growing up with his brother, William, in the dead-plain sprawl of humanity outside Houston, Texas.  It’s hard to tell at times whether he’s sneering down his nose at the place, or feeling sentimental about it.  That conflict is most keenly felt on the two title pieces that bookend the album’s sixteen tracks; “The Suburbs” speaks of a street war that the participants are ultimately too bored to wage, while “The Suburbs (continued)” finds Butler admitting, with weary resignation, that if he could have back all the time he wasted on those streets, he’d only happily waste it all over again.

Some might argue that with such lyrics, the Philips Exeter Academy-educated frontman is revealing himself as a whiny, contradictory elitist… but really, the feelings he’s relating on The Suburbs are no different from mine, or yours. Pretty much everyone carries a love/hate relationship with the place they grew up in; like it or not, our point of origin shapes our hopes and fears about life.

The Suburbs makes a thesis statement out of that very point, but takes its time getting there.  Much like the middle-class wasteland it depicts, it is a sprawling puzzle box of an album, with streets that lead to other streets that seem vaguely familiar to the ones you were just on, but not quite.  With each desperate memory and imprisoned soul, the record peels off another layer of what reveals itself to be a shared experience; The Suburbs is my story is your story is your next door neighbor’s story.  If you have ever known what living in a nondescript blip on the highway is like, then this record knows you, and you know this record.  It is that maturity and accessibility that makes the record special, and also what makes it distinctive from prior efforts in the band’s catalog.

The Suburbs’ songs are as deliberate and carefully observed musically as they are thematically.  Despite the constant anxiety on display in the lyrics, it might actually be Arcade Fire’s mellowest-sounding record, with hushed, down-tempo numbers like “Modern Man” and “Wasted Hours” providing a nice tonal contrast to vast, New Wavey epics like “Half Light I & 2”, “Sprawl I & II”, or the rockabilly-meets-Queens of the Stone Age mash-up that is “Month of May”.  “Empty Room” provides a lovely shot of classic AF energy, pitting a loop of arpeggiated violin swirl against slide guitar runs straight out of “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, while songs like “Rococo” and “We Used to Wait” take the band in a moodier, more austere direction.

Throughout the whole of the album’s 60-odd minute running time, a wash of 80’s synth styles hangs just enough above the songs to not totally smother them.  Instead of feeling like pastiche, it feels like a sort of woven-in soundtrack, snippets of half-forgotten memories passing by in a feverish haze – a bit of Peter Gabriel here, a snatch of Giorgio Moroder there.  Regine Chassagne – shamefully underused on the band’s sophomore effort, Neon Bible – emerges as this album’s shining star.  While Butler gamely embraces the role of Chief Lesson Giver, Chassagne’s chilly, pining vocals provide the emotional punch, and more often than not – especially on the drop-dead-gorgeous “Half Light I” or “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” – the impact of that punch is formidable.

So… is there a “big hit” on The Suburbs?  Is there an anthem that will replace singalong staples like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” in the band’s live set?  No, there is not.  But, that is precisely where the greatness of this record lies: subversion of audience expectations.  A not-so-subtle subtext runs through many of these tracks – particularly “Ready to Start”, “Rococo”, “Month of May”, and “We Used to Wait” – indicating that Butler and Co. are commenting on the audience of hipsters and indie rock snobs who put them on the pedestal where they currently reside.

With The Suburbs, the members of Arcade Fire have drawn a clear line in the sand; they are moving beyond the anthems, and they will not doom themselves to an eternity trying to duplicate their own prior success.  Their attention spans have evolved, and they expect listeners’ attention spans to evolve with them.  Like the repeated lyric on “We Used to Wait”, they will not allow anyone – least of all themselves – to just “sing the chorus again”.

It will be interesting to see how many people follow as the band chases down ever more ambitious ideas, and ever more complex expressions of those ideas.  But listening to this record, it is clear that – in perhaps the ultimate of ironies – Arcade Fire have never sounded more inspired than they do wallowing in the nondescript of The Suburbs.  Time will tell if the record is indeed a masterpiece, but for now – during these first few rapturous rides down its streets – it sure feels like one. –Luke Pimentel, Contributing Editor

“The Suburbs” is released on Monday, August 2nd in the United Kingdom, and Tuesday, August 3rd in the United States.  For more information on Arcade Fire, please visit or


One Response to “Arcade Fire Finds Renewed Inspiration in “The Suburbs””

  1. ultraviolet1 on August 12th, 2010 1:24 am

    Love the new Arcade Fire!

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