So let’s get a couple things out of the way up front: No, Regine Chassagne was not used nearly as much as she should have been. And yes, it’s really long. Too long by a quarter, probably. This is either its fatal flaw or not a flaw at all. It’s hard to say. We’ll get there, though.
With the very obvious exception of Radiohead, there’s not a band in the world that inspires more impassioned fandom than the Arcade Fire, and it’s not terribly difficult to understand why: they’ve long operated under the principle that the weight of the world hangs in the balance of every note they play, every word they sing. They’re good enough songwriters and bombastic enough performers that we buy into their plight and adopt it as our own, either because it was always ours, or because there’s beauty in those struggles, we’re sure of it. Then we thank them for offering us glorious, if also temporary, relief from them, through cathartic, explosive choruses and celebratory crescendos. It’s a curious and exceedingly rare type of relationship that’s been at the core of successful alt-associated bands from Nirvana to Bright Eyes. The Replacements, even.
Win Butler and the rest of the Arcade Fire struggled through family issues and death on their royalty-affirming 2004 debut, Funeral, and through bouts with organized religion and other institutions on 2007’s slightly disappointing Neon Bible. With The Suburbs, the struggle is between young and old, between long-haired kids and short-haired kids, between lost kids and kids who never knew enough to be lost in the first place. In a nutshell, it’s an album about the quiet virtues of small town life versus the lofty ambition of city-life, and about how neither of them are ever quite what we think they’ll be. But for the first time, they’ve released an album that’s almost all struggle and very little release. It’s an interesting approach, but it poses a few problems.
For one, it can make getting through it from start to finish feel like something of a chore. There’s not enough variation from song to song, let alone within songs, in terms of dynamic shifts or the theatricality that’s characterized their best work. The band sounds restrained and borderline uninspired on mid-tempo tracks like “Modern Man,” “Deep Blue,” “Half Light I” and “Wasted Hours,” none of which feature much in the way of their carefully honed specialities. Even “City With No Children,” admittedly one of the album’s potential centerpieces, is essentially a single musical thought that comes to a sudden and surprisingly unceremonious end after a tidy but uneventful three minutes. The excellent but confounding “Suburban War” does the same thing—it builds slowly and intently, then never exactly exhales.”Ready to Start” almost does, and “Rococo” definitely does, but it still feels minor in comparison to what we know they’re capable of. Regine’s “Empty Room” is non-stop, perfectly executed catharsis from the word go. It’s the exception, though.
The lack of musical resolution—or at least an obvious one–extends to the album’s themes, too. Even though The Suburbs goes on longer than it needs to be (maybe, unless it doesn’t—more on that later still), the album still somehow manages to feel incomplete. Whatever it is you’re waiting for all along—for one side or the other to come out of those struggles victorious—it never quite happens. Much of the album exists in what is, I guess necessarily, a gray area. It turns out the art school kids in “Ready to Start” were right to warn against blood-sucking businessmen, but the narrator of “City With No Children” wonders if he’s any better off than the bloodsuckers (“I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts”) and even warms to their Real World pragmatism (“When you’re hiding underground, the rain can’t get you wet/But do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt?/I have my doubts about it”). In “Suburban War,” one character loses touch with a friend who cuts his hair short, signaling a change in priorities, the pursuit of a straight life that stands in opposition to the one they’d agreed to, the one they’d dreamt of. Years later, though, the still-long-haired narrator finds himself back at home, peering into car windows looking for his friend. These situations pop up all over the record, and it’s frustrating. Butler recognizes the conflicts, understands both sides, then seems almost to throw his hands in the air and walk away. It’s disappointing, but it’s understandable. This shit is complicated.
For much of the record, Butler speaks in general terms. These aren’t Springsteen songs, and they don’t try to be. Characters don’t have names, and they don’t have particularly detailed back-stories. For the most part, we don’t know how old these people are or what really makes them tick. There’s a lot of talk about “the kids” and “the suburbs” as universally understood entities, and while it never quite comes off as condescending or disrespectful, it can at times seem lazy. But then there’s something else to consider.
The Suburbs could have been a record that told 16 distinct stories about 16 distinct people who learn 16 distinct lessons in 16 distinct neighborhoods, and it would have been an admirable, time-honored approach that could have paid great dividends. Instead, we get a record where the stories sort of bleed into one another, where a series of talking points are repeated, quietly, over and over again, with only slight variation from scenario to near identical scenario. We got a record that simply refuses to end, a record that sometimes seems like it will never actually reveal anything to us. And it feels right. The album works the way real suburbs work: affecting change not through flashy, story-book epiphanies, but by gently tapping you on the shoulder and saying the same things day in and day out, forever, to the point where most people don’t even pay attention. The Suburbs is a record about, and for, the people who do.