Moving Past the Feeling
After the wild success of Funeral (2004) and Neon Bible (2007), expectations for Arcade Fire’s third studio album, The Suburbs, grew exponentially. Songs like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go” created heavy anticipation for the band’s next move. Not many musicians start out as strongly as Arcade Fire has, and not many bands escape the so-called sophomore slump. But Arcade Fire have always been exceptional.
The Suburbs is a sprawling album—eight different covers, 16 tracks spanning over an hour’s worth of music. It illustrates a return home, back to those neighborhoods from childhood with all the worries of adult life in tow. Tackling the subjects of modern life and disillusionment is difficult to do, but Arcade Fire manage it without falling into overt cynicism or cliché, for the most part. While they may be “moving past the feeling,” as they admit on the album’s jaunty title track, it’s more of a suppression of their former verve than a descent into apathy.
Win Butler’s empathetic attention to the details of the suburban human condition informs the subject matter of the album. On tracks like “Modern Man” and “Rococo,” modern life’s monotony is not a monumental crisis; in fact, it barely reaches the level of an existential struggle. But it’s still painfully present and worth exploring in a song (or 16). In a world plagued by the meaningless transience of “these towns they built to change,” Arcade Fire have still found something to sing about.
The dreamy, orchestral “Half Light I” is one of the moments when Arcade Fire fulfill expectations for The Suburbs. Layers of vocal harmony and strings build subtly to create a beautiful anthem as guitars pulsate under Régine Chassagne’s dulcet voice. It’s an ethereal, fleeting moment, an eddy caught in the midst of the album’s flow.
“Half Light I,” “Deep Blue,” and the “Sprawl” set are high points of The Suburbs, rising above the other tracks with dedication to emotional intensity and musical complexity. “Deep Blue” starts out as a soft, quasi-acoustic continuation of “Wasted Hours” from earlier on the album, but it brings out minor tonalities in cabaret keys and low, bassy chords. It has the stirring, hair-raising quality Arcade Fire perfected on Funeral and Neon Bible, building to a crashing crescendo of sound. “Sprawl I” is haunting, its minor melodies and escalating strings accenting Butler’s vocals.
But the moments when The Suburbs reaches that level are less frequent than one might hope. The album isn’t as consistently engaging as Arcade Fire’s older material—it’s polished and well-measured, calm in its echoing soundscape of melodies and clean riffs. The gut-wrenching, gripping authenticity of Funeral just isn’t there. This isn’t to demean the album, but rather note a side effect of excessive expectations. And maybe that’s even the point—coming back to the suburbs is stifling, numbing.
The Suburbs does explore new directions on “Sprawl II” and “We Used to Wait,” experimenting with disco pop and dancey synth melodies. Both have sprightly keys and catchy choruses, with layers of effects and heavy basslines. Chassagne takes over the vocals on “Sprawl II,” showing off her often-underutilized talent on a delightful example of chamber pop.
Arcade Fire have moved to a new place (or rather, an old one), where the vitality of their former music is still alive and burning. It may lie obscured under the veneer of unmagnificent adult lives, but there’s still hope that the kids are alright, somewhere in the sprawl.