I grew up in the suburbs. Actually, I’m still growing up in the suburbs. And even if Arcade Fire had never made this album, they would have been my pick for modern artist best equipped to explicate that experience: suburban love (“Neighborhood 1 – Tunnels”), suburban fear (“Rebellion (Lies)”), suburban escape (“Wake Up”). Neon Bible was a foray into broader social/cultural/political commentary; The Suburbs is a return to the tender insularity of Funeral. Still, much has changed. Arcade Fire are definitely adults now, and though they explore similar territory, it’s with older eyes, more maturity, and a greater sense of narrative.
Win Butler has mentioned that the impetus for the title track was a desire to capture the experience of his childhood before it faded. Fittingly, this album is more urgent than the two that preceded it. On the title track Butler grasps at images and memories – learning to drive, running through the yard. The rest of the album is spent trying to make sense of this upbringing and the life it spurred: Did it make him into someone his young self would have been ashamed of (“Modern Man”)? Why is his nostalgia mixed with discomfort and fear (“Suburban War”)? If the songs on Funeral were your diary entries, these songs are the short stories you’d write after unearthing your diary. An attempt at putting yourself in context. Understanding the narrative of your life.
Though not flowery or intricate, Arcade Fire’s lyrics are essential to their appeal. These songs are their most direct yet, and at times they err on the side of pedestrian. What the band lacks in poetry it makes up in earnestness: Butler has never sounded more human, more sincere. (That’s saying something.) And there are moments of unadulterated lyrical beauty that surpass anything the band has done: “Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains.”
Arcade Fire tread the border between the personal and the political, the intimate and the global. Here they do it superbly: “Rococo” is a little preachy, but every other song comes across as thoughtful without being self-aggrandizing. Like Neon Bible, it feels like a statement; unlike Neon Bible, it is focused, unpretentious. It’s not dense, but it is certainly layered: it improves drastically with each listen. Sonically, lyrically, and thematically, The Suburbs is rich enough to intrigue and puzzle to the point that you’re listening over and over, thinking, “What exactly are they trying to say?” After a week of listening, I can offer little more than my certainty that if you spend time with this record, you will discover beautiful things neither of us could have anticipated.