‘The Suburbs,’ by Arcade Fire, CD review

One of the eight covers for 'The Suberbs' by Arcade Fire

Imagine you receive this phone call from a friend today:

Friend: “Hey, you gotta hear this new album I just downloaded.”
You: “Ok.”
Friend: “It’s a concept project like Tommy by The Who or Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson.”
You: “Ok. Those are pretty historic recordings. Who is this one by?”
Friend: “A Canadian band called Arcade Fire.”
You: “Ok. What’s the concept?”
Friend: “It’s an entire album about urban sprawl.”
You: “Okaaaaaaaay…”

That’s how I likely would have responded had it not heard a free feed of the entire album from NPR last week (this link is still valid as of 8:00am, Monday, August 9, 2010). I was able to download it Friday and haven’t stopped listening to it since (as of right now it is still $3.99 on Amazon).

This is a remarkable project (hover over the album cover here to see all eight covers in Flash). It is not a whining belly-aching screed against building a Wal-Mart or a call to tie one’s self to an earth mover. No mention of the DOT or sink holes. It is a thoughtful exploration/reflection as to what has happened to people, relationships and community in suburbia. If Tim Burton (“Suburbia isn’t a bad place, it’s a weird place”) were to remake Edward Scissorhands be assured that many of the songs here would make the soundtrack. If The Suburbs isn’t a screed, it most surely is a lament of all that can be lost when development takes place. In “Sprawl I (The Flatlands)” they sing:

Took a drive into the sprawl
to find the house where we used to stay.
Couldn’t read number in the dark,
said we’ll save it for another day.
Took a drive into the sprawl
to find the places we used to play;
was the loneliest day of my life.

The banality of suburban life is depicted as the police pull them over on their bicycles to see if they should not be getting home, but they cannot find the “home” for which they are searching. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” laments the sameness of urban sprawl and the life lived in it metaphorically pictured by the unending landscape of mall after mall splayed like mountain ranges.

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
These days my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface

‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the World’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

My current favorite is “City With No Children” which supposes that life sometimes leaves us feeling as abandoned as a long forgotten garden:

I feel like I’ve been living in
A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a billionaire inside of a private prison

The Suburbs uses a number of spiritual allusions to explore the emptiness of “life” in suburbia. In “City With No Children” they ask:

When you’re hiding underground
The rain can’t get you wet
But do you think your righteousness could pay the interest on your debt?
I have my doubts about it

In Half Light II (No Celebration) they sing:

Now that San Francisco’s gone,
I guess I’ll just pack it in.
Wanna wash away my sins,
In the presence of my friends.

They do not mention how this washing away is accomplished, but it is interesting that the loss of what they knew is tied to sin.

Becoming aware of the problems of life is mentioned in “Modern Man,”

In my dream I was almost there
Then you pulled me aside and said you’re going nowhere
They say we are the chosen few
But we’re wasted
And that’s why we’re still waiting
On a number from the modern man
Maybe when you’re older you will understand
Why you don’t feel right
Why you can’t sleep at night now

“Suburban War” poetically pictures the divisions that develop over music, hair and other trivialities. Cities are pictured as stars that can be seen by each other, but no one bothers to visit.

The Suburbs deserves serious attention come Grammy time, if the award can get over its own infatuation with fluff and give consideration to a project with serious lyrics and fantastic music. I mean, really, can we not give a Grammy to a project dealing with the sociological implications of urban sprawl? There isn’t a false note, an ending too long or a forced lyric. (All lyrics can be found at LyricsTime.)

Arcade Fire is also an amazing live band given, in no small part, to the fact that the multiple members play up to 16 instruments during a concert, some members rotating between drums, keyboards, accordion and guitars. They are an incredibly talented group. This link takes you to a 9-song set done in 2007 at Glastonbury, England. Below is one of Arcade Fire’s biggest hits, “Wake Up,” from Funeral.

Buy and download ‘The Suburbs,’ ‘Funeral,’ or ‘Neon Bible’ below:

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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