Millennial Masterpieces #4: Arcade Fire – [The Suburbs]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Fourth in the series is Arcade Fire‘s Grammy Award-winning meditation on nostalgia and youth: The Suburbs.

Released: August 2nd, 2010

Arcade Fire are one of the few contemporary acts left that still honour the idea of the album as a whole, rather than a collection of songs recorded over the course of a few years. Each of the band’s works exists as its own entity, with a central concept driving its sound. In this regard it’s hard to pick just one of their records to call their “definitive” album, because they redefine themselves with each release. Each time we meet them it’s as if we’re looking at the band through a different lens, even if at the core distinctive themes and melodies remain.

Still, there’s a reason this was the record that earned the band the Album of the Year Grammy and subsequently baffled the world’s un-hip folks.

It’s big, for one; sixteen original tracks on the standard edition and eighteen on the deluxe is massive by today’s standards. Running time aside, it’s also vastly diverse. Although the record is firmly ensconced within the 1970s, nearly every major scene of that decade is covered by Win Butler and company. The fierce punk of “Month of May”, the New York cool of “Sprawl II”, the angular post-punk of “Ready to Start”; the album’s alternate title could very well be That Seventies Sound. A small sample of the artists Arcade Fire pay homage to: Blondie, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, The Talking Heads, Wings, Gang of Four. There is one big scene noticeably absent– but funk would later make up almost the entirety of 2013 follow-up Reflektor.

What separates Arcade Fire from every other band looking in the rearview mirror is a palpable sense of anxiety in their music. Even at their most triumphant there’s notes of doubt or cynicism or hesitation. They’re not ones for earnestness, and it’s this self-aware attitude that prevents The Suburbs from turning into yet another paean exalting the Good Ol’ Days.

Were the years of youth really that good? Or is nostalgia a bald-faced liar? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Maybe things weren’t as great as selective memories tend to say they were, but that messiness was endearing in and of itself.

Win and Regine explore these thoughts with a detached sort of wistfulness, as if they’re constantly trying to remove subjectivity from the equation. “Sometimes I can’t believe it/ I’m moving past the feeling,” Win sings on the David Bowie-esque title track. It’s a battle between mind and heart, between sentimental attachment and reality, between emotion and logic.

All that said, there’s no shortage of genuine moments to be found here. “Suburban War” is sun-baked stroll through the town on an early autumn evening, while the shimmering and appropriately titled “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” finds the band sincerely defiant against The Man in a lush nighttime soundscape. The requisite epic songs come in the form of the swaggering “Rococo” and the widescreen “Half Light II (No Celebration)”.

The Suburbs‘ appeal is compounded by the pitch-perfect production. It’s like the sonic equivalent of the vintage filters you’d find on Instagram. But it’s all very subtly addressed;  as ironic as it may seem for Arcade Fire, there’s very little attachment to any big touchstones of the 1970s. There’s no specific references to world leaders, major events, or blockbuster movies of the day. There are however plenty of small souvenirs from that decade. A lot of the songs are covered in a musty, analog sort of sheen that evokes wallpaper, shag carpeting, wood paneling, Kodak film, and leather seats- without those things ever being sung about. It’s all done through sound.

Arcade Fire eschew blatant imagery yet paint a more vivid image of the seventies than any band mining that decade’s sounds today. They deal in minutia to make huge statements, and it’s that seemingly dissonant combination that make this record a crucial one to own.

Top Three Tracks: “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, “Suburban War”, “Rococo”