As new parents, it’s hard to find a more haunting song lyric than this one from Win Butler: “I want a daughter while I’m still young/I wanna hold her hand/And show her some beauty/Before this damage is done.” That’s from “The Suburbs,” the opening track on The Suburbs, and it’s less impressive as a stand alone song than it is as a sort of mission statement for the album that follows. Arcade Fire, who write songs about capital letter subjects (Death, Childhood, Etc.) with capital letter ambition, mine the suburbs for metaphors about youth and adulthood, aging and maturing, nostalgia and regret. It’s not always an easy ride — these are some of Butler’s bleakest lyrics yet — but The Suburbs floats by on Arcade Fire’s trademark passion and bravado. The band is certainly not the most optimistic group you’ve ever come across — “The businessmen drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would” is the cheery opening line of “Ready to Start” — but when faced with despair, Arcade Fire raise their voices and sing a little louder. This is the band, after all, that exhorted us — in the face of death — to simply “wake up.”
Community has always been a running theme for Arcade Fire — not one but four songs on Funeral were titled “Neighborhood” — but on The Suburbs community is threatened by sprawl. Or, to be more specific, Sprawl, the title of two songs on the album. On “Sprawl I (Flatland),” Butler sings about driving back to his old home and “the places we used to play,” only to lament the change that has come to pass. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” continues Arcade Fire’s fine tradition of standout penultimate songs; Régine Chassagne sings, “These days my life I feel it has no purpose/But late at night the feelings swim toward the surface” before launching into a chorus about moving out beyond the sprawl into the darkness. The song bounces along on a trippy electro beat and feels cathartic when Chassagne exclaims, “I need the darkness/Someone, please cut the lights!”
Other standout tracks include “City With No Children,” which sounds like Joshua Tree-era U2; “Rococo,” a jibe at self-conscious hipsters who “build it up just to burn it back down”; “Suburban War,” which escalates into Butler’s anthemic howl, “All my old friends/They don’t know me now”; and “We Used To Wait,” a song ostensibly about the lost art of letter writing, but below that a modern lament on par with Gary Shytengart’s recent essay “Only Disconnect.” (Yes, we linked to it last week as well. It’s that good!)
If there is a weakness to The Suburbs, which clocks in at a generous hour plus, it’s the sequence of “Month of May,” “Wasted Hours” and “Deep Blue,” three serviceable songs that pale in comparison to everything else around them. This is probably something like how John Stockton, Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner felt on The Dream Team. And this is, admittedly, a minor quibble.
Speaking of basketball, Win — who played ball in high school — got his only boos of the night by cracking on the Knicks during Arcade Fire’s show last week in Madison Square Garden. Opening your tour with back-to-back shows at the Garden, and rubbing the ’94 Finals loss in New York’s face? These guys aim high.
UPDATE!: We have a Sasha Frere-Jones sighting! His (brief) take on The Suburbs is here.