The only thing bigger than the sound of Arcade Fire is their ambition.
After five albums and hundreds of live shows it’s easy to take their extravagance for granted, but rewind one whole decade and it wouldn’t be considered hyperbole to state that they’d already approached seriously operatic heights with their first two albums. Yet the period surrounding the release of their third album The Suburbs — regularly touted as the band’s zenith — built on the grandiosity of those albums and managed, remarkably, to surpass them.
Where Funeral spiralled skyward in curlicues of quasi-religious fervour, The Suburbs unfurled far and wide across sixteen tracks and an hour-plus run time. It explored the band’s inquiries into life and death and then relentlessly pursued them through the prism of childhood nostalgia. In doing so it refined what seemed to be Arcade Fire’s overriding mission statement: to embellish life events that feel essential to the human experience.
The Suburbs turns ten years old this weekend and it is ripe for reassessment.
Ready to Start
The Suburbs arrived in the summer of 2010 three years on from Arcade Fire’s lauded sophomore release Neon Bible. That album doubled their exposure, taking them to the upper regions of the charts and established them as the most hyped live act in the world. Their third album would prove to be a watershed moment, allowing the band to experience a level of acclaim and popularity that had felt almost impossible for a rock band as the 00s became the 10s.
When the reviews came in at the end of July 2010 the hype built fast. More than any other Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs had real legs. It hit a sweet spot on the precarious seesaw of critical-commercial appeal and ran a country mile with it.
The Suburbs also saw Arcade Fire engaging a much bigger audience, expanding beyond the teenagers and 20-somethings that they had attacted with their first two albums. This could partly explain why it continued to pick up new listeners long after its initial release. Even more jumped on board when the band shocked the industry by picking up Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards with a flummoxed Barbra Streisand announced them as the winner.
Social Media Revolution
Arcade Fire albums have always felt like unifying statements — a marriage of the personal with the political — whether by design or not. It’s impossible to listen to them and not feel like we’re being welcomed into a world where a sense of community is intrinsic to the high-stakes drama of it all. They force you to feel something.
But The Suburbs arrived at a point when the ultimate distraction was taking root. Our dependence on the internet was still in transit, moving toward the all-encompassing entity we recognise today. Instagram didn’t even exist in the summer of 2010 and Facebook was still dominated by millennials, years before our parents logged on and realised the internet was a fun way to keep in touch with old friends (and spy on their kids).
The Social Network — a film that focuses on a group of frat boys who do mean things to each other at college and accidentally create a behemoth — was a few months away from release. The idea that a social media platform would harvest your personal data without consent felt like the kind of crazy ideas we’d only read about in dystopian novels, yet here we are ten years later.
As the novelty around the internet faded we found another way to stay plugged in for longer. The Suburbs arrived at this critical intersection, primed for the social media revolution and our nostalgia for the past. It reminded us of all we’d gained but also everything we’d lost. The band even released an interactive video for the song We Used To Wait that asked the viewer to input the address of the house they grew up in, harvesting data from Google Maps and Street View in the process to tailor the experience — an idea aimed at delineating the contradictions thrown up by memory and sense of place in a digital world. At the time it was an ambitious project fuelled by creativity, but ten years later it feels dated, locked in time as a means of exploring the era’s curious new avenues for potential connectivity.
Moving Past the Feeling
More than any other Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs sees Win Butler at his most introspective. He sifts through childhood memories in an attempt to make sense of the present, embellishing stories that semi-fictionalise as they carve their own fractured path. The mid-point of the album even begins to feel somewhat sci-fi in nature, perhaps mythologising the past in order to blot out a present day dystopian nightmare.
Across songs like Empty Room and City With No Children, the band adopt the role of lost souls or wanderers, survivors of a long-forgotten civilisation surrounded by relics. Silhouettes haunt the attics of derelict houses and howling winds billow down concrete underpasses. Forgotten cemeteries succumb to the elements, reclaimed by nature. The imagery of the album’s centrepiece Half Light I / Half Light II (No Celebration) feels suspended in a perpetual haze of twilight, rallied by pleading vocals, sun dappled faded Polaroids and the searing cri de coeur of Owen Pallett’s string arrangements, which flourish with all the wonder and majesty of a Californian Superbloom.
It doesn’t let up. Enormous sounds elevate The Suburbs’ relentless drama, in turn keeping Arcade Fire’s quintessential hallmarks intact. Electric guitars and synths reverberate as though they’re scaling the sides of skyscrapers to pierce the night sky. Piano chords ring out like ghostly clarion calls decrying instant gratification in remembrance of a simpler time. The band evidently went to great lengths to cultivate a sound that might reflect the corruption of urban cityscapes in conflict with a laid back vision of suburbia. Songs like Wasted Hours and Sprawl I (Flatland) hold a microscope over sociopolitical shifts of previous decades, revealing suburbia as a man-made playground, the feathered halo of capitalism’s concrete jungle.
Yet the suburbs that many people make a home are forever morphing — they were built for that very purpose. Suburbia gets devoured and consumed by the city, chopped up by bureaucracy to appease the political razzmatazz. Entire communities are bulldozed to make way for big business. Fields children once played in are flattened and replaced with vast housing estates, erasing the past with bold promises for the future. History falls to parking lots and shopping malls.
The Suburbs favours an inherently novelistic approach. The opening song mantras the phrase “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling” as though it were an incantation. Given its fixation with growing up in suburbia we might assume the protagonist is reliving his own transition into adulthood, but one could also infer it as the moment we recover from a broken heart or the death of a loved one. It doesn’t seen possible at the time but it comes eventually. The duality of Arcade Fire’s music often allows for multiple interpretations.
That duality hides like camouflage on the lead single. The lilting tone of Butler’s vocals evoke a mélange of bucolic imagery: sepia tone home video footage, white picket fences, fresh-mown lawns. Yet we’re often deceived, reeled in by the veneer of social niceties. These are well worn tropes mined endlessly in film from The Graduate to Blue Velvet and American Beauty where the contrast serves as the vehicle for exploring diametrically opposed elements of human psychology.
Returning to Suburbia
Whilst The Suburbs is firmly entrenched in the process of documenting urban decay, blighted cityscapes and dead shopping malls, the way its songs are sequenced suggests that suburbia can bestow inherently cyclical traits.
People grow up in the suburbs, they move to the city to build their careers and acquire independence, meet their life partners, maybe have a couple of kids. Then they move back to the suburbs, whether to find somewhere more affordable to raise their kids, or because the city got too loud. Maybe they just want to be closer to ageing family members.
The final song on the album is a ninety-second orchestral reprise of the titular lead single. The inclusion of (Continued) on the end of the track-name gives the entire album a filmic undertone, but it also reads as a continuation of the clichéd cycle of suburbia.
The line “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling” reappears, only this time the words are whispered and lead to an eventual fade out, but not before Butler suggests that the growth process has allowed for a new perspective. One that has come with age:
If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again
If I could have it back
You know I would love to waste it again
Waste it again and again and again
Left on a loop, the album segues perfectly back to the title track. People move back to the suburbs. Their kids repeat the process.