Arcade Fire Arcade FireThe Suburbs
There is a certain film theory, according to which, in the face of the impossibility of the perfect work, in the face of the impotence of an original stroke of genius in the current socio-economic and cultural situation, many of the best directors of the moment are opting for work under construction. Rather than seeking the immaculate finish, the polishing of rough edges, and the closed specificity of the right choices, these new authors (or old foxes, who know all the tricks) prefer rough surfaces, cutting edges, and the open expansion of searching. If in their debut, “Funeral” (Merge, 2004), Arcade Fire encapsulated the concept of the epic in crystals with a complex structure but popular finish, and with “Neon Bible” (Merge, 2007) they did the same thing, extending their genres but not their horizons, with “The Suburbs”, they play at the Big Bang and reveal an open work, with its good and bad points, its highs and lows, but always with a greatness that surpasses all of the band’s previous parameters.
This is Arcade Fire’s most ambitious and complex album to date: an album-river that, at times (magical moments), makes listening to music follow the same rules as those you use to materialise the pages of a book inside your mind. The skeleton of “The Suburbs” is literary to the core: it not only has a circular structure (the last song is the same as the first, but eroded, with a melancholic echo), but the circle is also divided into two pieces that reflect one another. In fact, this is a double album in which it is impossible not to think of a play of mirrors: both sections contain eight songs, of which one works like an opening in the first half, and the other (the same, we have already said) as a closure, in such a manner that the other seven songs create a narrative crescendo that culminates in both cases in a suite of two songs. It’s like a play divided into two acts or an art film that, when it is played in a suburban cinema for bored housewives, is cut into two parts so that Betty Draper and her friends go out to fill up their Diet Cokes.
The Butler couple say that “The Suburbs” is inspired by a childhood lived out in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. With that as a starting point, the album composes a diabolical portrait of life in the American suburbs with multiple layers. The songs speak of children who grow up and, as their innocence is corrupted, they also lose their optimism. Is that so? Are they speaking of this? Or couldn’t it also be understood as the mental refuge of adults who remember their childhood with nostalgia as they face a world in social and economic decomposition? There are songs that speak to the beloved person, until you realise that they are also aimed at the friend who you lost touch with after finishing elementary school, and they even speak to a vague, abstract social being, with those whose “fault” it is that everything is sinking into misery. Like every good work of art, “The Suburbs” allows for several readings: what level of nonsense and whimsy you want to take it at depends on how much of that you want and the attention you pay.
The first half of the album is the most luminous: a point of departure that is like a party on a beach, where remains of the optimistic shipwreck that the band celebrated in “Funeral” are still washing up on the shore, carried in by the tide. The opening song, “ The Suburbs”, with its country waltz tempo that is so Neil Young (one of the album’s confessed influences), bathes the suburbs in a very Douglas Sirk light: colourful and aesthetic, but with a tense undercurrent where one senses the tragedy (“When all the walls they built in the 70’s finally fall, when all the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall… Meant nothing at all?”). The next movement, “ Ready to Start”, one of the album’s most inspired songs, puts a sort of rebellious idealism onto the shoulders of the main characters (“I would rather be wrong than live in the shadows of your song”), a desire not to give in to the siren song of an undefined “you” where a thousand habitual fears of the passage from adolescence to maturity can be inferred: faithful love, routine, alienation. “ Modern Man”, with its Springsteen half-time, and “ Rococo”, the most “Funeral” song of the lot, speak of modern men (“So I wait in line… I’m a modern man”) and children (“Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids. They will eat right out of your hand using great big words that they don’t understand. They say Rococo, Rococo, Rococo, Rococo”), while “ Empty Room”, pure violin punk, focuses on the impossibility of the authentic self when it contrasts with life in society.
These five songs define the battle field, with its false clearings and veiled darkness, in such a way that, beginning with “ City with no Children”, the snake slips into Paradise. In this song, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne speak in the past tense of an idealised time before the suburban war arrived (“I wish that I could have loved you then, before our age was through and before a World War does with us whatever it will do”). The keys for identifying this suburban war are included in the suite “ Half Light”, split into a beautiful, very sad initial ballad followed by an odyssey with space guitars and synthesisers that welcome a shabby galactic age: “When we watched the markets crash, the promises we made were torn”, “Some people say they’ve already lost, but they’re afraid to pay the cost for what we’ve lost”... Economic crisis? Social collapse? Cultural downfall? There are several interpretations, all of them juicy.
The second part of the album opens with the very country Eagles guitar lines of “ Suburban War”, where the game of mirrors starts to reveal how rot within the previous situations established so far on the record. The phrases, as if we were in a class of Dangerous Scripture taught by Spanbauer, repeat themselves as a narrative hook, but also as a means of providing nuance for the ideas: starting at this moment, many prayers are repeated in various songs, although the fact that in this (second) opening song they state “I’ve been living in the shadows of your song”, when in “Ready to Start” it was assured that such a thing would never happen, already indicates from the beginning that this second section is going to be impregnated with the betrayal of high ideals. In fact, this second piece shows this darkness, misanthropy, and pessimism that Arcade Fire already advocated in the apocalyptic-Biblical atmosphere of “Neon Bible”, however much of “ Month of May” plays at messing with your mind using the rush of rock adrenalin coupling the loudest Springsteen with some very stoner guitars. It is a rush, nevertheless, in which Win and Régine cling to purity (“I said some things are pure and some things are right… But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight”) as a life raft in the midst of total shipwreck. In fact, “pure” is, revealingly, the word most often repeated in the album.
From here on out, Arcade Fire make an effort to expose the negative in the first part: if the songs in first part were light in form, with a dark undercurrent, now they choose opaque, sad songs in which they dive in search of a luminous pearl to shed light on this sinking. In the heat of a dispassionate battle, “ Wasted Hours” longs for down time as a desirable lifestyle (“Wasted hours that you made new and turned into a life that we can live”), while the torch song that is “ Deep Blue”, although it is the (deliciously) gloomiest song of the whole, clings to the possibility of victory against the triumph of technocracy over humanity. At a certain point in this song, Butler phrases “Kasparov – Deep Blue, 1996,” a legendary game in which the chess player beat a strange opponent: the artificial intelligence of a machine. Here it is important to mention 1996 as an optimistic note, as a year later, in 1997, all of these hopes were lost when Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue II. But the intention is to remain close to the light, or in its absence, to the memory of the light: “We Used to Wait” chooses to recover the details of the past (to write letters to the beloved person, for example) as coordinates for emotional survival in a dehumanised present.
Closing the album, the suite “ Sprawl” deals, in two antithetical parts, with the play of light and dark in this “expansion” from the epicentre of the cities where we have ended up living. In “ Sprawl I (Flatland),” a ballad at the lowest, starkest point of profound defeat, Win bares the impossibility of “home” for the children of the suburbs: “The last defender of the sprawl said, well, where do you kids live? Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth… Been searching every corner of the Earth.” Right then, Régine (who, as we have sensed, takes on the role of lightening her husband’s depressions) approaches “ Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” as the definitive 80s act: a superficial, synthetic finish that Butler has claimed as the influence of Depeche Mode, although this time it ends up reminding one more of bands like Altered Images. A new falsely happy dawn where your eyes hurt from overexposure to neon and city lights (“I need the darkness. Someone please cut the lights”). This act of determined optimism might remain as the final declaration of intentions if it weren’t for “ The Suburbs (continued)”, that echo of the opening song that finishes as the last death rattle of pessimism. Doesn’t everything described so far sound like a retro-futuristic novel in which a group of children struggle to survive emotionally during an abstract Apocalypse? Like a Ray Bradbury who polishes the retro-futurist shine to search for warm emotional remains among the rubble? Like a George Orwell (Win Butler’s favourite writer) who never suspected that his gloomiest predictions would seem optimistic once past the turn of century? Like one of those Lynch films where, based on a plot idea rather than a specific plot, he portrays the blurry lines between the dreamy nightmare and the shine of American society? “The Suburbs” boasts a plot line, that’s clear, but the album’s stroke of genius lies in the circular plot that ends up revealing itself to be a spiral that descends into a hell without flames, where there is only the inhuman coldness of modern society. Listening to the album in perspective, a darkly poetic version of official American history can be inferred, which would run chronologically from the natural light of the 50s (the first songs) to the neon lights of the 80’s and the feast of synthesisers of “ Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”.
“The Suburbs” is an album that contains the complexity of a Russian nesting doll in its intention and which, nevertheless, turns out to be highly accessible to those who approach it, independently of that person’s desire to “root around” in its multiple layers. When everyone expects Arcade Fire to continue to be smiths obsessed with the perfect miniature, they have chosen to hunt down their own glass Moby Dick. “The Suburbs” isn’t an impeccable album. But it does give further proof that Butler and company have taken the pulse of the current situation, this work transcends the musical aspect and lands directly in the territory of contemporary art, scraping the social to tear fascinating shreds of poetic beauty from it. Raül de Tena Arcade Fire - The SuburbsArcade Fire - Ready to Star[HQ]