20 Aug 2010

Postcard from the Sprawl: The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Like much of the Western world, I am currently navigating the Arcade Fire's third album and large-scale portrait of the archetypal suburban sprawl. And sprawl it does, in every direction, to the extent that while each song seems pleasantly familiar now, there's still clearly a lot more ground to be covered before every lyrical and musical detail of the sixteen-track work is mastered, and eventually exhausted.

This sense of sprawl is abetted by the consistent, chugging drive which characterises most tracks - (you could say the band 'keep the car running' throughout) - occasionally picking up or easing down the velocity, but leaving far fewer clear aural signposts than the first two, more variegated albums. Yet the apparent 'flatness' which characterised early listenings only suggests a different kind of song collection and a more concentrated conceptual statement. Suburbia is, after all, seemingly identical wherever you go - its subtleties and quirks become apparent with familiarity, and the attachment that this breeds.

It doesn't take a long stay in the Arcade Fire's suburbs for these subtleties to emerge, in melodic motives, harmonic sidesteps, added beats, one or two melting lyrics, or the odd vocalised countermelody. Favourites loom out of the tracklist thick and fast: 'Suburban War' with its sudden sobriety and ecstatic central section, the uneasy recollections of Neon Bible's anthemic 'Intervention' in 'We Used To Wait', the Stars-like rush of 'Empty Room'.

It was always their lyrics that pushed this band to such hysterical levels of critical praise, and these songs continue the epic, magic realist reimagining of the contemporary North American townscape. The parentless, snow-cradled neighbourhood of Funeral finds its immediate counterpart in 'City With No Children', another stand-out track which digs a few newer, deeper chords into the band's mythic Americana mode.

The whole record is, however, just one broad approach to the final full-length track - 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)', the haloed disco beacon burning on the horizon throughout. It seems perfectly engineered that Régine should step in at the final moment with twinkling synths and an uplifting message of hopelessness, the kind of deeply complex emotional twist that the Arcade Fire are so adept at expressing, as if, reaching the crest of a hill (a relative, surely, of Peter Gabriel's 'Solsbury Hill') and finding only more of the same, sprawling out towards a new horizon, you finally give up, sit down, and watch all the lights flicker on as the day fades. For all its unnerving expansiveness, the album's portrayal of archetypal suburbia as homeland and battlefield is totally integrated into its musical geography.

buy it

Arcade Fire - City With No Children by leafhouse

Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) by user39221