Arcade Fire’s seven members resemble an archetypal family. They grew up — on record, anyway — in the bittersweet nostalgia of small neighborhoods, remembering the bedrooms of their parents and the bedrooms of their friends; moved on to the bright lights of histrionic cities, trying to avoid it when the planes hit the ground; and now, migrated to the suburbs. (Where else does one go after producing Neon Bible, one of the decade’s more somber statements on existence?) But far from a comforting escape from all that came before, Arcade Fire’s suburbia is a lot like Cheever’s: menacing, shadowing the depression of lost innocence and the paranoia of adulthood behind a pretty white picket fence.
On The Suburbs, their third album, Arcade Fire sound more like a band than ever before — at times bucolic, at others epic on the verge of overwrought, rarely crossing the line (as they have in the past) between masterful, grandiose composition and exaggerated stadium rock. But while this is an album with a courageous, clattering sound, it’s largely about feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin. “You told me we’d never survive,” Butler sings to no one in particular in the opening line of the opening song. “I’m moving past the feeling,” he croons, defeated, as though such a movement is truly Sisyphean. Later, he informs us he’s moving past the feeling only to go deeper “into the night.” There’s a swelling of strings and keyboards that sound like falling into an abyss, threatening to overpower the song’s delicate melody.
It is a dark opening, and a self-referential one. What that feeling is is never defined explicitly for us, but it’s likely everything the band has rebelled against in the past, resurfacing here in more sinister ways. For instance, while “sleeping” was “giving in” on their debut, 2004’s Funeral, here, Butler laments his sleepless nights: “Maybe when you’re older you might understand why you don’t feel right/ Why you can’t sleep at night now,” he moans on the Bowie-esque “Modern Man,” as though he is older, as though he knows exactly why his eyes stay propped open: all those nights of keeping the heavy eyelids lifted set a precedent — an urge to stay awake and dissatisfied. “I’m a modern man,” he sings, shrugging off his melancholy as if sleepless nights are an expected condition of a new decade. Yes, he understands: there’s no moving past the feeling.
While the album does have its missteps — the tired ‘me vs. them’ paradigm on “Rococo,” the meandering “We Used to Wait” — the music is mostly exciting. A lot of that is thanks to the frequently masterful playing of the other six members. They provide a necessary buffer to Butler’s trampled hope, producing a strange antithetical rallying cry despite the album’s themes of insomnia, paranoia, of doomed cities with no children, of shopping malls popping up like “mountains beyond mountains.” The Suburbs makes Funeral sound slim. It’s almost portentous enough to collapse in on itself, but is saved by the band’s volatility; they interchange dirges with crescendos unexpectedly, relieving the music’s bleakness as spontaneously as they create it, controlling the album’s graveness in a motion of crests and waves. And not only do they reproduce the dark emotions of Butler’s lyrics, they also reprieve him — and the listener. “But my old friends, they don’t know me now,” he sings on “Suburban War,” as the band plays a funeral march with a guitar that sounds like it’s slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean. He then insists “Choose your side, I’ll choose my side,” and the band takes off, the drums sounding like a stampede, everything else dissolving into an ephemeral echo.
There’s nothing on The Suburbs as immediately gripping as “Wake Up” or quietly haunting as “Keep the Car Running,” but the album, with each song subtly flowing into the next, is not designed for standouts, but rather to be taken as a whole. Gone are the failed experiments of songs like “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” or the unnecessary didacticism of “Une Année Sans Lumiere.” Arcade Fire have focused on playing together as a group, creating a strange but accessible Möbius strip of a pop album. Images and lines are repeated, hinting at a larger conceptual framework, but, like an August day spent driving around the suburbs, there’s no definitive story here, no clear narrative. The album starts where it begins, with Butler claiming he’s “moving past the feeling,” admitting if he could get back “all the time he wasted, he’d only waste it again.”
With their nearly audacious sincerity, their almost uncomfortable intimacy, listening to Arcade Fire now is like revisiting one’s family after a long absence. Everyone is back where they started, telling one another what they already know — that spark of friendship and love finally returning home.