88.1 WKNC Pick of the Week 9/24, written by May F. Chung, WKNC deejay
Listening to Arcade Fire is like listening to an opera. There’s a certain element of grandeur of popping in The Suburbs into the CD drive, an anticipation of knowing that whatever fills your ears for the next 63 minutes is something of high caliber. What do you expect from Arcade Fire, the band that has produced the beautifully wistful Funeral in 2004, and three years later, another genre-defying album entitled Neon Bible but tinged with notes of political intensity? You can hear the sweat of their performance. Win Butler, who has possibly the greatest name in indie rock, and his beloved, Régine Chassagne, both of whom form the backbone of the band, explore some of the themes that pervade most of the album, including its namesake.
Being a kid and growing up in the suburbs, then leaving and accomplishing great things before returning and discovering that everything you left behind—all the memories of innocence and heartbreak—has remained, patiently waiting, and as stoic as ever. The reverent nostalgia is evident in the lyric, “Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last,” from “We Used to Wait.” Arcade Fire reflects on the neighborhood you grew up in (literally, as the new video for the song invites you to enter the address where you grew up and personalizes the video to your own childhood memories). The Suburbs is, in fact, a maturation of their last two albums. As the group comes to terms with adulthood, they still cannot help but wonder longingly over the days of kids when they used to dance under police disco lights (a reference to Funeral’s “Laika”). “In my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard,” croons Butler in the title’s opener. And yet, there’s a sense of cynicism against the new youth raging for an art form they do not understand. In “Rococo,” the group sings, “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand using great big words that they don’t understand.” There is no inspiration in experimentation anymore. Everything is contrived, art is vapid and self-emulating. Butler continues to chant “Rococo” as the chorus and mutters, “Oh, my dear God, what is that horrible song?” But the statement itself invokes irony.
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is easily the best song of the album and neatly ties The Surburbs together. Everything we view as kids is gargantuan, including “Dead shopping malls [that] rise like mountains beyond mountains.” If there’s any showcase of Chassagne’s beautifully hypnotizing voice, it is this song. “Sprawl II” is a component of “Sprawl I (Flatlands),” but both reflect on the same memory of the sprawl, or the home communities of the surburbs where all the houses that line up look the same. For Chassagne, it is a mountain, a childhood reserved for riding bikes and playing in parks. For Butler in “Sprawl I,” it is a flatland, a miserable suffocation of civilized society. Is this the same band that used to crowd all their instruments (including a double bass, xylophone, glockenspiel, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin and hurdy-gurdy) into the elevator as a delightful experiment? Apparently so. Instead of relying on the success of formula, Arcade Fire strives for a new, vibrant sound on The Suburbs, which serves, if nothing else, as a testament to their own greatness.
88.1 WKNC Pick of the Week is published in every Friday in the print edition of Technician, as well as online at technicianonline.com and wknc.org.