Watching Unstaged, the Terry Gilliam-directed live broadcast of Arcade Fire’s recent show at Madison Square Garden, it was slightly comical and a little worrying as Win Butler, the imposingly tall but reserved frontman of the eight-piece (give or take) Canadian/Texan juggernaut tentatively practiced some fledgling stadium gestures. At one point, he set off for a wander through the audience mid-song (with lengthy mic cord trailing awkwardly behind him); at other times he leaned off the lip of the stage as if preparing to crowd surf, but only allowing the startled front rows to receive his weight for a few hesitant seconds before withdrawing, standing back on his own two feet.
Given the heroic framing of the performance by Gilliam, given the legendary reputation of the venue, and given, too, the anthemic, shout-along quality of so many of Arcade Fire’s songs, it wasn’t too farfetched to begin wondering: are we looking at the commencement of Arcade Fire’s “stadium era”? In a way it was revisiting the likes of Bono or Springsteen in the early 80s, before their act became an “act,” when their relationship to the audience was less a cynical tease and more of a passionate communiqué. Certainly, the camera shots which looked into the rapturous faces of the 20-and-30-something New Yorkers — many of whom were openly weeping while singing the words to “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or the now-iconic “Wake Up” during the encore — told a story of mass catharsis from a generation who are accustomed to experiencing their emotions once or twice removed.
Arcade Fire has always had this unusual ability for a (post)modern rock band: to connect and resonate deeply in an era where attention spans have dwindled to a nervous flicker and communication occurs mainly through monitors and screens. Their debut album, Funeral, seemed to come out of nowhere when it was released in 2004. Brooding but soaring, an exploration of the darkened lanes and avenues of childhood, where the power cuts out and the children are afraid to close their eyes, Funeral tapped into slumbering coming-of-age memories of reluctant adults everywhere. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s third full-length, continues to explore the rich emotional territory of Funeral, but this time the lens is focused to highlight the memory of a very specific time and nature — a pre-Gameboy adolescence, full of dead time and the continual search for refuge in our parents’ paved-over version of paradise.
While the music is recognizable as Arcade Fire — tinkling pianos, driving, dark forces pushing up from underneath — the lush arrangements of 2007’s Neon Bible and the euphoric choruses of Funeral are mostly missing from The Suburbs. There is little in the way of gimmicks or innovation this time around — these arrangements feel purposefully basic, built around simple hooks, with nostalgic tinges of the AOR classics of the Seventies and early Eighties — as if we are receiving a ghostly transmission from the vintage sedan featured prominently on the album’s cover.
The simplicity of the music serves to highlight the album’s painstaking attention to lyrical and thematic detail. This is less a CD than a novel, a memoir, and listening to it in its entirety, with the lyric sheet out (as we used to do, way back when) it’s reminiscent of some of the best modern authors such as Coupland or Safran Foer — spare, carefully edited, and deeply emotional without giving in to melodrama or overstatement.
While Funeral was written mainly in the defiant voice of youth, mistrustful of and resistant to the jading tendencies of encroaching maturity, The Suburbs looks backward with the bewildered longing of the adult who could resist no longer. Memories of the “wasted time” — empty hours looking out of bedroom and bus windows, the wait for letters that would never arrive, furtive meetings of the tribes in barren lots, endless bike rides out to the edge of darkness to look for an exploding star, or for any scrap of remaining wilderness to claim for one’s own — are met with the disorienting perspective of the present day. Searching in vain for the true friendships forged in childhood in the blank face of today’s “Modern Man” (“makes me feel like…something don’t feel right”) and in the wide-eyed stares of media-savvy but sheltered “modern kids” (“They will eat right out of your hand…they seem wild but they are so tame”), there’s the ambivalence of having to move forward coupled with the small, sharp grief of realizing what has been left behind for good. The narrative also flirts with a murky vision of the future and the very real fears for the childhood of the coming generation, eliciting what may be the most affecting lyrics on the entire album (“So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done”).
While neither Win Butler nor his wife Regine Chessagne are technically great singers, Butler’s tremulous voice is unmatchably adept at imparting endless shades of emotional color –his complete inability to resort to bellowing and shouting means he knows how to pack so much information into the barest of whispers. Chessagne, who takes the lead on three of the tracks, sounds much better when she isn’t channeling Bjork, but transforming instead into a breathy post-disco chanteuse along the lines of Blondie or Tom Tom Club-era Tina Weymouth. Her “Sprawl II” starts off a bit dodgy, but by the second verse turns irresistible, providing the necessary levity to balance what could have been a relentless downer of an album. The song sparkles, and it’s easy to understand why her husband bussed her mid-song during the Unstaged performance. Other highlights include the stately “Deep Blue” and the slow-burning title track, but to be honest, there isn’t a bum song on the album – despite its lengthy tracklist (16 in all) it feels spare and economical, reiterating key lines through the different songs as if to remind itself of its raison d’etre.
The Suburbs is not only a musical memoir but also a kind of plea, a statement to the emergent generation of kids who are unconsciously losing the option of being bored, of having the time to waste. In the brief, beautiful reprise of the title song, Butler affirms, “If I could have it back, all the time I’d wasted…I’d only waste it again…again and again and again…” This album stands as a searing missive from the last era of idle youth, to “put the laptop down for a while” and risk growing up.