Ever since their 2004 debut, Funeral, Arcade Fire has distinguished themselves as a uniquely creative band. They make music that is both emotionally rich and lyrically incisive—a truly rare combination, putting them on a very short list of rock artists. So it is no surprise that their newly released third effort, The Suburbs, is being hailed by critics as a singular achievement. Those familiar with the band knew that once they hit their stride, given the right inspiration, they could make a masterpiece. Well, with The Suburbs they’ve done just that.
This is a concept album in the best sense of the term. The themes of the songs all pertain in one way or another to life in modern suburbia and the besetting struggles of our time, particularly those related to technology and our frenetic pace of life. Arcade Fire reflects on the stark contrasts between childhood innocence (the “wilderness”) and life in our technology-laden urban sprawl. Their nostalgia for reasonably paced life is palpable in many of the songs, but never more so than in “We Used to Wait,” where Win Butler sings: “I used to write letters. I used to sign my name. I used to sleep at night before the flashing light settled deep in my brain… We used to wait for letters to arrive. We used to wait. Now our lives are changing fast. I hope something pure can last.”
I never thought I’d see the day when a renowned rock band would make an anthemic song endorsing the virtue of patience. Perhaps just as unlikely is this wise lyric: “Never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount. I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts” (from “City With No Children”). Elsewhere, Regine Chassagne sings, “Living in the sprawl the dead shopping malls rise like mountain beyond mountains. And there’s no end in sight. I need the darkness. Someone please cut the lights!” (“Sprawl II”) This is straightforward cultural criticism, but made especially potent because Arcade Fire is sincere enough to be self-indicting and insightful enough to allow their critique to amount to an endorsement of traditional (or perhaps I should say “transcendent”) values. That’s always risky territory for artists of any kind, but couched in the musical beauty surrounding these lyrics, Arcade Fire can get away with it.
In the vast sea of artists in contemporary music, there are relatively few that really have something to say. And among these, much rarer still are those who have something important to say. Arcade Fire is one of those rare bands, and The Suburbs is as important a statement as it is an enjoyable album. And that is saying a lot.