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According to Arcade Fire front man Win Butler, The Suburbs is not so much intended as a criticism of the suburbs as it is "a letter from the suburbs." Butler and his brother, Will, who is also in the band, grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and lived on the East Coast before Butler moved to Montreal and started Arcade Fire with his now-wife, Régine Chassagne. Unlike a lot of semi-trendy suburb bashing, The Suburbs takes a more complex view of the openness and striving for meaning found in Butler's childhood memories. As one reviewer wrote, "The Suburbs defies stereotypes and expectations while reclaiming the worth of the suburbs as a place where monotony urges one to true existential crisis." In defying traditional depictions of suburban misery, "the album trumps a mere collection of clichéd anthems of malcontent…forgoing pure critique and staying focused on the honest evocation of physical and psychological suburban landscapes."
The suburbs were not always talked about casually as a cultural no-man's-land. When suburbs were first invented in the 1950s, they were imagined as something closer to an American utopia: places of safety, prosperity, and relative conformity in which the chaos of world wars and urban sufferings could be kept at bay. But the project of the suburbs has since become the object of a heavy load of cultural criticism, ranging from historians who point out the racism and exclusion of the suburban project to art school kids who resist their own suburban upbringings by smashing TVs. Some of the greatest rock music of the 1990s reflects on and resists the suburban paradigm, whether it is by thrashing around garage-rock style or descending into a slow, sad spiral of meaninglessness.
The Arcade Fire, themselves at least partial suburbanites, take a different tack than the art school kids and indie rockers before them. They don't bash the suburbs—they take us into them. They also make fun of a different kind of doldrums, the boredom and façade of the supposedly more cultured urbanites: "By poking fun at The City as a place of affected depth, Arcade Fire avoids the creation of binaries; i.e. the 'burbs equal suffering and the big city equals salvation," writes Daniel Levis Keltner for Precipitate. In "We Used to Wait," the setting is a slow suburban past in which Butler wrote love letters and then waited for the reply. The place, the imagined suburbs, is beautiful by virtue of the nostalgia it now contains. But the sense of change—of leaving, growing up, moving on, and moving faster—is just as important as the sense of sameness in the song. As a "setting," the suburbs become less a physical space, and more a feeling, a way of life that, at least for Butler, no longer exists.
In 2007, the New York Times called Arcade Fire "one very, very indie band." According to the flattering feature article, "an Arcade Fire show has the feel of a Clash concert infiltrated by Cirque du Soleil." The article called Arcade Fire songs "rousing" and "emotionally charged" and described the hectic fun of watching the 8-person ensemble buzz around the "church-turned-recording studio" where they recorded their sophomore album, Neon Bible. This wacky group of circus punk indie rockers was already "Canada's most celebrated musical export," but they were still playing the occasional basement show for the people in their neighborhood and turning down offers from major record labels. And this was before they'd even come close to releasing The Suburbs, a surprising masterpiece that took home the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year.
Critics didn't just like The Suburbs—a decent number of them loved it. In a somewhat rare coincidence, fans did too. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums charts in the U.S., and it topped the charts in Canada, Belgium, Ireland and the UK too. Rolling Stone called it "fantastic" and trend-setting Pitchfork gave it a begrudgingly good review, calling it "a satisfying return to form" that "focuses on this quiet desperation borne of compounding the pain of wasting your time as an adult by romanticizing the wasted time of your youth." Phew! SPIN was even more exuberant: "Radiant with apocalyptic tension and grasping to sustain real bonds, The Suburbs extends hungrily outward, recalling the dystopic miasma of William Gibson's sci-fi novels and Sonic Youth's guitar odysseys. Desperate to elude its own corrosive dread, it keeps moving, asking, looking, and making the promise that hope isn't just another spiritual cul-de-sac."
Indeed, The Suburbs reflected the growth, creativity, and self-reflective nature of a band that never set out to "make it" by mainstream terms, but ended up doing exactly that. Like Arcade Fire's previous albums, the album is a cohesive and thoughtful album. "We Used to Wait" is one of the more ominous and melancholic tracks; other tracks on the album take us through a complete cycle of joy, boredom, loss and disillusionment—a story that applies not just to suburban childhoods, but to lots of different American childhoods.
One commentator even compared The Suburbs to a William Blake poem: "This is a gradual gradient of maturity from Funeral (people die) to Neon Bible (EVERYONE DIES!) to The Suburbs (but, y'know, it's not going to happen today so just chill out). The progression is similar to the one William Blake takes us through in Songs Of Innocence And Experience that suggests forward momentum and maturity." Quietus.com might be over-enthusiastic, but it's clear that The Suburbs is more than just a listenable rock album—it's deep and textured music, dealing in emotions as much as ideas. "We Used to Wait" is a reflection on technology and memory; "Modern Man" reviews Butler's anxious dreams about the past and the future; "Rococo" spits a bit of fire at the "modern kids" who lack creativity and vision. The pairs of songs called "Half Light" and "Sprawl" take us through landscapes of hopelessness and redemption based in a banal reality: the doldrums of a childhood in the land of suburban sprawl. Whatever you think about the music, Arcade Fire's thoughtful reflections on growing up in a rapidly changing society are worth contemplating—and this album is the album that will most likely define the band for years to come.