There are not many great things that have come from Canada. Yeah, they have their mounties, vast, beautiful landscapes and maybe good maple syrup, but in the past several decades, the Great White North has failed to contribute significantly in areas of art, film, and pretty much everything else — that is, until the arrival of Arcade Fire’s third album “The Suburbs.” Hailing from Montreal, the septet, fronted by husband and wife duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, drew acclaim for their eclectic mix of conventional guitars and drums and not so conventional instruments such as the cello, xylophone, glockenspiel and even the hurdy-gurdy (a wheel fiddle) in their music.
A far cry from their gloomy yet groundbreaking debut “The Funeral” (2004), and less ethereal than their second release, “Neon Bible” (2007), “The Suburbs” encompasses all the elements of indie music moving into a new era, a new decade. Arcade Fire is ever-changing, and this album is a testament to that — it is modern sounding, yet experimental; every song can stand on its own, yet lyrically, the band succeeds in telling a romantic narrative about youth, suburban suppression and personal strife.
A record of Butler and his brother’s upbringing in suburban Houston, the album opens with the title song, “The Suburbs” — a song that reminisces on the innocence of youth and dangers of boredom and misguidance. The jangly piano keys and Butler’s falsetto on the chorus, “Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m movin’ past the feeling,” brings about nostalgic feelings of naïveté and adolescence.
The stop-start opening of “Modern Man” sets the tone for an intricate song exploring the division between the outsiders and the conformists in society. Pretty complex stuff, right? But though these songs may touch on some heavy subject matter, their composition — everything from the drum beats to piano chords — draws away from the gravity of the issues and even adds a playful element to the songs.
With that said, Arcade Fire present themselves as musical philosophers, social commentators, truth seekers, but in a subtle and non-condescending way. Butler writes with honesty, as displayed in the song “Rococo” when he trashes the “cool kids” — “Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids / Oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing / They seem wild but they are so tame.”
Marking a shift in the sound of the album, “Empty Room” introduces Chassagne’s unusual, yet beautiful, voice and reverts to a musical style identical to that of “Neon Bible.” The second quarter of the album is heavily instrumental; vocals are light and airy and are often supported by eerie background echoes. “Suburban Wars” is a heartfelt tune about cutting ties with the past and waging war on everything learned from youth. And “Month of May” opens the third quarter of the record with a blast of punk-inspired energy; it’s fun and is the kind of song that signifies freedom from the repressive nature of adolescence, or it may just be the kind of song that you and your friends could sing along to during a long car ride, top down, hands waving in the air, breeze flowing through hair.
And then the album becomes mellow again. In songs like “Wasted Hours” and “Deep Blue,” Butler’s vocals are soft and subtly provocative; he creates a mood of meditation and calm in these feel-good songs. “We Used to Wait” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are songs that have a strong electro-pop sound that you can definitely dance to. The album closes with the beautiful interlude “The Suburbs (continued),” where the elegant combination of Butler and Chassagne’s vocals echo the lyrics of the opening song to fluid violin melodies.
From the first listen, it is very clear, that Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” takes from many genres. Whether it is the punky attitude of “Month of May” or the beautifully melodious tone of “Wasted Hours,” the album showcases the group’s versatility and marks them as catalysts of a new era of indie music.