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Arcade Fire captures 'The Suburbs' to perfection

Arcade Fire

The Suburbs

Posted 10:47am on Wednesday, Aug. 04, 2010

When you consider what today's children contend with, it's hard not to shudder.

There are fewer kids riding bicycles around neighborhoods or happy families out for an evening stroll. These bonding activities, the essence of a childhood, have been supplanted by fast, cheap, digital distractions: the bustling overload of the Internet and mountains of gleaming yet worthless entertainment product.

Is this the mindset of a crotchety senior citizen? Perhaps. But these are also the inevitable feelings stirred by Arcade Fire's superb new album, The Suburbs.

Win Butler, the group's lead singer and songwriter, turned 30 in April; I'll mark three decades myself this week. It's a demarcation between youthfulness and sobriety crying out for consideration. Butler grew up, like I did, in the middle part of America (he outside Houston, myself outside Tulsa), where there's a very specific, almost indefinable sense of alienation pervading everyday life. Unless you've lived for any stretch of years in such a place, the almost-hermetic nature will seem baffling: grow up, go to school, get married and have kids, stay put. The same people in the same buildings on the same roads, forever and ever, amen.

Such a setting wouldn't seem the most logical source of inspiration for one of 2010's best records -- perhaps the best -- but this Canadian collective has managed just that. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire's hotly anticipated third studio album, is an exquisite work of art, one which deftly captures the boredom, the desire to break away and accomplish something and the powerful pull of nostalgia. Indeed, I can't think of another record thus far in 2010, from first song to last, that I've connected with so viscerally.

Over the course of 16 tracks, produced by the band and Markus Dravs, Butler, Regine Chassagne and the rest of the Fire crew create dense, baroque and epic soundscapes that demand contemplation. It's an album, in every sense of the word; it's not a collection of singles strung together with filler.

These are songs fueled by Butler's coming-of-age outside Houston in the early '80s, as sprawling and impersonal a suburban area as you're likely to find. That unremarkable expanse provides the album with a vast feeling, almost as if the listener is roaming through endless housing additions at twilight. It's as much a declaration of self as a collection of loosely related songs about confronting echoes of the past in the here and now.

But just as The Suburbs is rooted in the vivid sense-memories of youth -- Empty Room, for instance, cherishes the freedom of being alone within four walls; "Spent the summer staring out the window," Butler sings in Wasted Hours -- Butler also mourns the loss of what little identity the suburbs had to begin with (the mini-suite Half Light I and II is a gorgeous, sweeping elegy).

As corporations continue to roll out carbon-copy buildings across the country, distinguishing characteristics are vanishing as quickly as the new Walgreens or Taco Bell can be erected.

The impermanence and hyper-transience of modern life also pains Butler, a topic previously addressed on Arcade Fire's 2007 effort, Neon Bible, an album ostensibly focused on religion. (2004's Funeral dealt primarily with death.) Here, he laments the instant gratification generation in We Used to Wait: "Now our lives are changing fast/Hope this something pure can last."

If all this sounds too high-concept, painfully pretentious or, worst of all, cranky, rest assured Butler and his bandmates confound expectations by delivering their most accessible album to date. The Suburbs is greatly aided by a series of lush, devastatingly beautiful compositions -- the thrilling backdrop of strings on Rococo; the almost celestial glow of Half Light I -- and a willingness to sonically invoke inspirations as diverse as Depeche Mode, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

Wistful, tinged with regret and determined to make the most of the future, The Suburbs finds a band confidently expressing itself without tipping over into sentimentality or, worse, swagger. Arcade Fire connects on a deeply emotional level throughout. Win Butler and his collaborators have made an album that will only grow richer and more important with time; if that's not in direct opposition to the vast majority of music today, I don't know what is.

Mostly, the record reflects how weird it is to grow up at a remove from the chaos of a major metropolitan area. It's hard not to feel conflicted about having lived in such a unassuming existence. The endless mass of houses, strip malls and family life is overwhelmed by homogeneity, which can be a stifling, even surreal experience.

Yet, such a life can have moments of piercing beauty and singular power resonant far beyond aimless summers and montonous school days. It is that paradox The Suburbs understands and conveys -- although nothing is as it once was, that doesn't mean it isn't worth remembering.

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