Monday, August 2, 2010

You Can't Go Home Anymore: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Before the music press hype-machine begins to wind up, I had the chance to listen to the new Arcade Fire record slated for release on August 3, 2010. Usually anything that receives too much hype, particularly in the arts, annoys me to no end. But The Suburbs turns out to be a compelling concept album by Arcade Fire and it’s the band’s most personal statement yet about the aging process and personal loss. The band had already expressed some of the same themes on Funeral, their 2004 debut, namely the loss of ancestry and identity. On their follow-up, Neon Bible (2007), the group sang about the loss of spiritual idealism to the televangelists and bible thumpers of America. But this new album is about the loss of the neighbourhoods of their youth and the unfulfilled promises of the new century. For Win Butler, that loss includes long drives on the streets in the summer, putting a band together to cut a record in the basement (or garage), and it’s about the anxiety of high school and what to do when one is "bored."

"Deep Blue", is a song about chess master Garry Kasparov playing an IBM computer that won the six-game match. Confronting machines is something Butler obviously fears: "We watched the end of the century compressed on a tiny screen/A dead star collapsing and the we could see that something was ending." This song is immediately followed by "We Used To Wait," a sad lament to the old forms of communication such as letter-writing and the fact that he could once sign his name and remember the thoughts he regularly expressed. But now Butler is affected by the speed of technology in 2010 and the pain of losing the ability to clearly articulate how he feels. "Sprawl I" and "Sprawl II" bring the nostalgic trip home to a melancholy end.

I don't know who said it, but for Arcade Fire "you can never go home again." "Sprawl I" talks about the loss of innocent emotions one had as a kid growing up. True, the objects and old house are still there, but the feelings are now lost, " Let's take a drive through the sprawl, through these towns they built to change/Then you said the emotions are dead, it's no wonder that you feel so strange."

In "Sprawl II," sung by Regine Chassagne, the experience of adolescence in suburbia is almost tragic: "Living in the sprawl the dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there's no end in sight/I need the darkness. Someone, please cut the lights." Then the album closes with a reprise of the opening track, "The Suburbs." ("If I could have it back all the time that we wasted /I'd only waste it again.")

Musically, Arcade Fire has toned down the hard-driving sounds of the first two albums; music that repelled me rather than drew me in. But this record has a cleaner, leaner sound without the constant drive of the drums pounding me into submission. There's more texture in these tunes and while it's not the best record I've heard this year, it's not one I'm easily going to dismiss.

 -- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.