he vaunting ambition of Arcade Fire always cried out for stadia filled with the converted, armies of believers willing to share in their vision. After a debut record as revelatory as Funeral, nothing less than adoration and communal euphoria seemed fitting. Their success felt right, it felt natural and deserved. Their live shows often seemed less like promotional tours than religious awakenings.
All this makes The Suburbs a record with considerable baggage. How do you follow up perfection? Where do you go from epic songs of soaring passion? This record never tries to match its towering forebears for size or ambition. It is instead something of a curveball in an already storied body of work. It turns away from grandeur and elation and opts for something smaller. These are songs of suburban boredom, ennui and frustration. It is quiet and disappointed, but never quite defeated.
Initially, The Suburbs seems the most conventional Arcade Fire record, the most reliant on songcraft. The title track for instance, is not so far removed from ‘70s AM, though the haunted flashes of falsetto introduce an unsettling element into what could have been overly familiar. Even more muted is Suburban War which shuffles along with images of alienation (“This town’s so strange”), threatens to explode into a passionate peak, then recedes again and finally finishes with a backdrop of faint claustrophobia and encroaching noise.
Only rarely does The Suburbs noisily rage against the relentless mediocrity of dead-end streets and ghost town malls it describes. This prevailing sense of restraint makes The Month of May stand out all the more, as it buzzes with anger: “Some things are pure and some things are right / But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight”. Mostly, though, the anger is bubbling underneath; on Deep Blue it is murky and hypnotic and on City With No Children it is there as nostalgia turns to regret.
Conceptually tighter than the somewhat uneven Neon Bible, this record sees songs divided into fragments and lyrics recur throughout the record. This only adds to the inertia described, and in a song like Roccoco, which could just as easily be about indie scene insularity as local boredom, they make a virtue of inaction and repetition, riffing on the title and turning it into the album’s most effective vocal hook.
The characters of The Suburbs constantly yearn for somewhere better, even if they’re not sure where that might be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wasted Hours: “We’re still driving around and around / All we see are kids in buses / longing to be free”. But it is typically enigmatic on an escape route from this nothingness, anti-climatically ending with the promise of a “life we can live”.
On Month of May Win Butler’s urgency is palpable as he sings “2009, 2010, Wanna make a record about how I felt then”, but it actually makes more sense to think of The Suburbs as a kind of prequel to Funeral. This could be the soundtrack of the band before they learned to mould suburban boredom into something as affecting as Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels); before they created something transcendent out of sheer force of will, reasoning that sometimes if you yearn for greatness and meaning the best way to get it is to create it yourself.
The Suburbs is a different kind of record for Arcade Fire, subtle and slow-burning where previously they had been spectacular. But it may be their may be their greatest trick yet: a record all about boredom which manages to be kind of thrilling.