The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Merge ) Win Butler hates the 'burbs. But cities can be just as soul-crushing.

Lawn of the Dead: Arcade Fire has few kind words for the suburbs.

Arcade Fire’s creative director, Win Butler, spent his developmental years in a suburb of Houston. Now he’s 30, and for the Montreal group’s third record, Butler employs those memories as a totem for his band’s conceptual M.O. The irony is that The Suburbs, a work about America’s colorless culture as told through tales of sanitized suburban adolescence, is Arcade Fire’s least imaginative record. Somewhere between the celebrated landing of its debut, the smashed guitar on Saturday Night Live, the Obama fundraisers, the breathtaking trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, and the charitable Super Bowl ad, Arcade Fire cemented its reputation as one of our most important bands. The group can now nearly fill arenas with its expansive, melodramatic, soul-saving baroque pop and its sweaty, swelling catharsis. Funeral, the 2004 album about loss and community, was every bit as vital as perpetually advertised. Neon Bible arrived in 2007 after the midterm-election backlash, so its referendum on institutions was passé, but the songwriting soared. But listening to Régine Chassagne dramatize a lonely drive through vast sprawl like it’s an apocalyptic nightmare loses something when the Red Line is tardy, crammed, and lacks air conditioning. Not unlike Butler’s suburbs, urban centers on the East Coast can feel exhausting. Not having a car and spending an hour commuting five miles is rarely fun. Cities combine culture and industry with pollution, isolation, and old, unsettling wealth. At least you don’t get that in Texas. There are sleazeball millionaires, sure, but Jerry Jones builds big football stadiums and chases fake blondes. It makes sense, goddammit. On The Suburbs, songs are propped up by recurring bits about children, windows, night skies, echoes, and consumerism that recall stock plots of pop-cultural touchstones. “Modern Man” churns with the backyard-pool existentialism of The Graduate. “Rococo” fears the rebellious, vacuous hipsters of Fahrenheit 451 and tucks boring words behind a high-brow title you have to look up. Lyrics falter with close reading: Take “I had a dream I was dreaming/and I feel I’m losing the feeling/makes me feel like, like something don’t feel right,” or “The kids want to be so hard/but in my dreams we’re running and screaming through the yard.” Is that the preeminent songwriter of our generation, or Trent from Daria? The best moments materialize when Butler brings back the mournful romanticism that could beget tears of joy during Funeral’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” Combing through childhood artifacts, the “Half Life” suite is plastered with pretty strings and searches for meaning back home. “Ready to Start” sounds like the summer everyone left and a love went stale. “We Used to Wait” is interesting, because it’s blatantly nostalgic for the simple suburban youth embedded in an era Butler spends the other 15 tracks denouncing. How much The Suburbs strikes you depends on your weighing of the abundant melodies and detailed orchestration against the stretching theme and reaching lyrics. Perhaps relocated professionals will identify with the moods and feel vindicated by manifestos of entitlement like, “On the black river, the city lights shine/They’re screaming at us: we need your kind.” But what of Butler’s ’burb, The Woodlands in Texas? It’s a monstrous zone that’s doubled in population since the 2000 census, burgeoning with corporate campuses; it’s 90 percent white and full of comfortable, new money. After high school, isolated, creative types have the means to soul-search three hours west along US-290 in Austin. But I don’t see what the big deal is.

VIDEO: Arcade Fire- Month of May

Our Readers Say

Ramirez, well-written review, and persuasive especially in terms of Butler's occasional dud of a lyric, which made me chuckle a little (as I agreed with how silly they sound out of context).

Otherwise, I'll have to humbly disagree with you, particularly as an individual that grew up in the suburbs of PG County (Riverdale, Hyattsville, College Park, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, DC), and have also been desensitized by harsh redline area culture (especially with how grumpy all of us East Coast kids are ... it's true, just go visit Seattle and you'll see what I mean).

to me, this album is a striking show of growth in terms of composition, songwriting, maturity and production on both Arcade Fire's and Merge Records' part. It's more of an existential bookend to Funeral, which was filled with adolescent escapism ... The Suburbs stretches the experience to the adult mindset, one that has moved "past the feeling" (as the debut track mentions) and onto a place that rues the angst of growing out of that intrapsychic world of magic.

And come on, the album doesn't paint a soul-crushing picture of the suburbs dude ... it's a bittersweet, melancholic view on that type of upbringing (a motif that begins with Funeral [2004] and ends with The Suburbs [2010]). With that melancholia there are lingering memories, images and feelings of ennui AND beauty (both are represented in this album, and if not lyrically, through the music).

The album is clearly a romanticized recollection of that experience (not surprising considering it's Arcade Fire), but as a child, as an adolescent, our perception of "reality" IS romanticized in various ways. Can't you imagine a dreamy kid in the suburbs getting lost in his imagination? I can, because I WAS that kid ... and can't you imagine the fugue-like malaise as an adult (in your 30s) as you look back onto that upbringing, and the moments that comprise it? It's rather mournful but it is also strangely comforting, it's an interstice betwixt the two.

Personally, I don't read so much into lyrics (in terms of certain types of music or bands) as they often come across as nonsensical when you extract them from the context of the melody and the music and what mood or feeling that evokes (Half Light 1 being a perfect example of that evocation of mood), which for any arcade fire song, are often haunting, quietly uplifting, or all-out anthemic. Funeral's lyrics weren't any more imaginative or articulate, trust me.

A long time ago, I read the Washington City Paper's review on Neon Bible (when it was first released), which was a mean critique on how the album "pretends" to be something uplifting and important, but is ultimately a summation of empty melodrama and manipulation. I remember that review distinctly, and I'm not surprised that this latest review of an Arcade Fire album in this publication are just as immovable about Arcade Fire's latest offering (which topped the billboard charts).

While all of this is of course a matter of taste and is subjective, the writers at WCPpaper sometimes come across as scrooges and grouches, honestly.

I saw Arcade Fire recently at Merriweather Post Pavilion (touring with Spoon) ... Anybody that is incapable of being moved by the level emotional energy, sincerity and musicianship of that performance I truly feel sorry for. Some people are soulless to begin with, you see ... a preeminent frame of mind guarded by thick glacial layers of ice.

Cheers.
I completely agree with Skavinger.

This album is hardly a denunciation of the suburbs. The final track finds Win singing longingly:

"If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted
I'd only waste it again
If I could have it back
You know I'd love to waste it again
Waste it again and again and again"

Yep, really harsh denunciation there.

And this album has nothing to do with a comparison of the merits of living in cities or suburbs. If anything, the lyrics indicate a continued longing for somewhere remote, tranquil, and pure -- a place where no cars go. In Sprawl II:

"I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights"

It's clear to me that there is ambivalence about the suburbs, and thus, ambivalence about where the protagonist comes from, his past, and where he has ended up. This review completely misses the point. Why does it matter how the population of Win Butler's hometown has changed since 2000? Huh?

"I saw Arcade Fire recently at Merriweather Post Pavilion (touring with Spoon) ... Anybody that is incapable of being moved by the level emotional energy, sincerity and musicianship of that performance I truly feel sorry for. Some people are soulless to begin with, you see ... a preeminent frame of mind guarded by thick glacial layers of ice."

Agreed completely and I likewise appreciate the thoughtful commentary. I can't speak to the Neon Bible review, but I am an absolute fan of this band and hail their previous two albums as concrete masterpieces.

My reading of the album, after about 30 listens, is Arcade Fire tearing into their childhoods. The Woodlands facts matter for two reasons:

1. Butler paints the Burbs as a failed experiment throughout the thing and his "meant nothing at all" hometown is in fact booming and it certainly struck me as disingenuous.

2. Coming from Texas myself and attending UT in Austin, I was repeatedly struck by the Houston kids. They were so unified in their relief to not be in the Houston suburbs; so dismissive of the culture. But they all had means to find themselves wherever they chose; they were all upwardly mobile creative types from 100K-plus a year homes. Butler got to run away to prep school and later McGill, a prestigious Canadian private school. It's, at very least, an unappreciative perspective that bugged me.

Moreover, what kind of a bro lets Jon Stewart play up his nonexistent Canadian roots as a recurring bit? And what kind of TEXAN?

I love living in D.C. (Eckington NE in the house), I left home to pursue industry. But I will always proudly represent Texas because it's awesome and it's home.
To Ramon _ McGill is not a private school, but one of Canada's most prestigious pulic universities. Anyone can go there as long has they have the grades for entry and it's not that much more for tuition than other universities in Montreal.

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