Arcade Fire: Turning An Ear Toward 'The Suburbs'
Arcade Fire is at once obvious and subtle, which could stand as one definition of a good popular rock band. If this group calls its new album The Suburbs, you can be sure that that's what an awful lot of its 16 tracks are about. Frontman Win Butler, raised in the 'burbs outside of Houston, Texas, knows enough about his subject to be ambivalent about it. On the one hand, the title song talks about the ticky-tack construction of suburban developments; on the other hand, it embraces the shared, sheltered culture of middle-class life without hostility or condescension.
One reason Arcade Fire has become an act that fills stadiums is the scope of its musical ambition. Its songs have the scale and sweep of anthems, and anthems sound most complete when there's a large audience to respond to them. The current version of Arcade Fire is a seven-piece band that builds momentum within each song -- unfurling guitar chords that ripple alongside the windiness of the band's lyrics.
I don't mean windy as an insult, either. Butler sings the grand, garrulous verses with the serene patience of a man who enjoys contemplating how best to live one's life. Arcade Fire may attempt arena-rock as overreaching as anything Bruce Springsteen or U2 has achieved, but the band also keeps the ideas specific and thoughtful. They sing lines such as "I want a daughter while I'm still young." In the song "City With No Children," they consider how to behave before "a world war does with us whatever it will do."
Many of the songs on The Suburbs stretch on past four or five minutes, and occasionally need to be broken into two parts -- or movements -- to achieve their full effect. The effect is nearly rock operatic, the music sometimes matching one of the song titles: "Rococo." But Arcade Fire manages the difficult task of shaping songs to match the guitar hook or the refrain the band wants to implant in your mind. They know the value of changing up the pace and varying the style.
At a time when most cool-kid bands are intent on churning out either chaotic sprawl or hip-hop-inflected hit singles, Arcade Fire is an unabashed album band -- in fact, that's the phrase Win Butler has used in interviews: "We're an album band." The band members see a collection of songs as their primary unit of creativity; they're going for the cumulative effect, they want their audience to spend time making connections between the songs and knitting them together to make The Suburbs something other than a crazy-quilt of alienation. It's difficult to do that without sounding derivative or self-consciously retro, but Arcade Fire has found a way to do it, with sincerity and vigor, and with frequently glorious results.
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