By Al Bell
Assuredly the band’s most exciting record to date – and considering that Funeral, their first release, was one of the best albums of the last decade, that’s saying something. The suburbs addresses familiar themes for Arcade Fire; fantasies about youthful innocence are juxtaposed with commentary on the cynicism and materialism of the modern world, developing ideas from their previous records.
Here Butler’s lyrics are more direct; In “We used to wait” he pines for a time when “I used to write letters, I used to sign my name” – his is a familiar complaint against a society dulled by its dependence on technology to mediate human interactions, an issue artists have struggled with since at least the beginning of the century and a Modernist concern. Yet there is a desperation in staccato piano, the frenetic, wandering guitar and Butler’s wavering, urgent vocals which lend a earnestness to his lyrics: “when the lights cut out I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown.”
The album seems preoccupied with fleeting moments, the transience and coincidence that decides the life’s outcomes – nothing is static in Arcade Fire’s universe, and their lyrics either lament the loss of the past or nervously anticipate the future. Its really an insecurity about “growing up,” which, in Butler’s estimation is becoming cynical and jaded. The first track, “The Suburbs,” has Butler quietly wish to “have a daughter while I’m still young” so that he can “show her some beauty before this damage is done.”
Its this anxiety of “moving past the feeling” (essentially giving in to the de-humanising demands of modernity) that colours his barbed retort to critics of the band’s financial and “mainstream” success – those who lament that the band is no longer “indie” – in “City with no children”. The song is a typical Arcade Fire rocker, with massive guitars and heavy kick drums; Butler sings pointedly and defensively to his detractors: “when you’re hiding underground the rain can’t get you wet. Do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt?”
Butler’s defensiveness is unnecessary; the band are far from past it, still demonstrating their capacity to produce varied and complex music which secures their position as one of the industry’s pre-eminent artists. “Half Light II” is to The Suburbs what “Wake up” was to Funeral – the song everyone knows. Synth echoes 80s new wave while guitars pound out resounding chords, over which Butler’s voice swoops, adding a candid and endearing “woo” as the song reaches its climax. Its what we’ve come to expect from Arcade Fire, and they justly deliver on their potential for crafting innovative, uplifting anthems.