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The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)

I encountered this CD during a recent buying spree at a local music store. I had never heard anything by Arcade Fire, but was willing to give them a try because I had read some positive internet comments about them. I also noticed a sticker on the cover which announced that the CD had won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2011. That's not a guarantee of greatness, in my opinion, but I went ahead and laid down my cash in the name of music research. "Besides," I reasoned, "I haven't been on a CD-buying spree in years, I deserve to splurge a little."

To be honest, I wasn't really expecting to like The Suburbs very much.  It was released in 2010, and based on the state of modern music, I gave it a fifty-fifty chance that they would turn out to be one of those emo/screamo auto-tune bands.

I wondered why they made the choice to put the album title in quotation marks on the back cover and on the front of the booklet. Were they quoting someone, or did the band members drop out of school at a young age and go live on the subway? I understand the challenges of getting a quality education in that type of situation.

A second red flag was the use of grandiose song titles with roman numerals like "Half Light II (No Celebration)." This usually means that the songwriter takes himself a little too seriously, and expects each listener to experience a profound personal transformation after hearing his words of wisdom.

Adding to my skepticism was the band's choice of suburbia as the album's recurring lyrical concept, a subject which has been routinely targeted by songwriters ever since The Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" back in the sixties. Traditionally in rock music, the suburbs were much-regaled as an oppressive, dull world where you were expected to fall in line and conform to the living standards of all your boring neighbors.

These days, the concept hardly seems relevant. The suburbs, and the middle-class prosperity which produced them, are in decline, and society seems to be headed for a darker, more desperate way of life closer to Blade Runner than The Brady Bunch.

In spite of all the warning signs, The Suburbs is actually a very well-crafted, intelligent, and entertaining album. It incorporates diverse forms of instrumentation and music styles. There is nothing that could be considered lyrically or musically clichéd about it. They draw their influences from a long list of music icons which includes David Bowie, The Beatles, Pixies, and The Smiths, along with a generous helping of 80s techno-pop.

They have actually managed to put a fresh spin on the subject of the suburbs. Their version of suburbia is more of a declining era of the past than a place for keeping up with the Joneses, and the lyricist seems to have mixed emotions about it which are tied up with his memories, some good and some bad. A feeling of nostalgia for the past comes through on "We Used to Wait," which laments the decline of postal mail: "It may seem strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive, but what's stranger still is how something so small could keep you alive."

The title track, "The Suburbs," is reminiscent of Station to Station-era David Bowie, with its silky smooth vocals and bouncy piano rhythm. The music creates a mood of playfulness with a simultaneous undertone of impending doom -- the type of cautionary fear-of-the-future tone that bands used to take in the early 80s. ("Atomic Dog" and "Mr. Roboto" are two of my favorite examples, for those of you looking for extra credit.) The surreal, ambiguous lyrics refer to a coming suburban war which will pit "your side of town against mine."

Another highlight is "Rococo," with its slow, eerie arrangement and theme of alienation: "Let's go downtown and watch the modern kids... They will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don't understand." The strings are ominous and chill-bump inducing, like something out of a vaguely remembered nightmare. This was the song on the album that I really connected with the most. Songwriter Win Butler makes it clear that he has lost faith not only in society, but in his own generation.

Probably the best thing about this album is the band's total disregard for formulaic barre-chord rock, in which a song is created by simply gluing together a series of guitar chords and then slapping some lyrics on top. The songs on The Suburbs are more like compositions. The guitars are used sparingly and creatively, and get equal exposure with piano, synths, strings, and backing vocals.

Which is not to say that this album is devoid of any rock songs. "Month of May" lays down a primal beat and guitar which add a shot of adrenaline to the CD, and ends with a mysterious-sounding keyboard that seems inspired by early Pink Floyd. "Empty Room" is a delightful slice of British shoegaze a la My Bloody Valentine, featuring the female vocalist Régine Chassagne, who also plays violin and keyboards.

She appears as lead vocalist again on what may be the album's best song, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," which is heavily influenced by 80s techno-pop music. I was touched by the band's embrace of this musical style that was so often and wrongfully disparaged during its heyday. This is also the first song I've heard that documents the decline of shopping malls.

Chassagne's vocals are like the icing on the cake on what was already a near-perfect album. Congratulations to Arcade Fire for helping to dispel this old guy's prejudice against newer bands, and the belief that they would have nothing to say that would interest him.

Reviewed by Somebody 2/1/12

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