The Suburbs Redux I – An in depth track by track look at Arcade Fire’s new release

1 Sep

The Suburbs sprawls across an hour’s worth of shimmering sonic terrain – a familiar topography for the band.  We sit in the passenger seat of Win Butler’s car and watch a world of families, bored adolescents and ageing adults pass by.  Arcade Fire’s newest work is more fixed in the real thanever before. It’s a more nuanced, detailed and observant work – the lights of a police car in bike reflectors, the glitches of a perfectly judged synth riff, the disco and motown influenced syncopation structuring many of the album’s most upbeat moments.

Reviews of the album are everywhere.   From the good, to the bad.  So to avoid that whole discourse I’m going to take a look at a few tracks close up. The paintstrokes and the pixels that make up the beautiful whole.

I – Empty Room

The opening strings are a mix of signature Owen Pallet and Funeral-era Arcade Fire tracks – an energetic flutter which calls to mind Heartland. Like the boundless energy of a six year old let loose to play in the backyards of the neighborhood this insistent heartbeat powers through the track.  The strings push on and on…an adrenalin surge… the smell of burning bicycle tires and sunny weekend air.  Like Heartland’s uptempo string sections which mark journeys and adventures, Arcade Fire drag you along with all the pedal power they can muster, the suburban streets flying past in a blaze of youthful exuberence. This seems likes an adventure. Whoever this kid is, they’re taking over the neighborhood, the town…

The playfulness seems simple and sweet. But the song is far from a one trick pony.  It’s painfully short – like the innocence of youth.  For above all, the song is a love song – whether that’s love for a relative, friend or lover isn’t clear.  Playful, childlike at the one time, there’s a romantic sehnsucht that guides the song’s lyrical progression.  For all the soaring, boundless spirit of the opening, the lyrics reveal it all to be imagination – a multicoloured world conjured up out of the banality of the suburbs.  A fantasy growing from loneliness and  lost  feeling.

Said your name in an empty room

Said your name in an empty

Something I would never do

I’m alone again.

Place in the song becomes something of a set of russian dolls.  The mind, the empty room, the suburbs… and somewhere imagination and love exist.  Guitars wail, soaring and diving like conflicting emotions, the highs and lows of love and the memory of a special one.  But in the suburbs these feelings are forced to fight for survival.  The empty room (be it the relationship, the mind, the heart) is completely overwhelmed by sound – by emotion. It’s an escape from suburbia through fantasy – the search for self and identity in a world of organised sterility.  The single room, the space of the mind and of self-reflection, becomes more than a refuge – it’s a safe place.  An archive of feeling.  The place of secrets.

When I’m by myself I can be myself

And my life if coming

But I don’t know


Win and Regine sing side by side. Regine slightly higher in the mix, and taking the reigns at the end as she sings in french…the cryptic lines:

Toute ma vie, est avec toi.
Toute ma vie, est avec toi.
Moi J’attends, toi tu pars.

All my life, is with you. Me I wait. You, you leave.

It’s the pain of growing up and moving from a home.  It’s the tearing apart of old connections, the effort to keep relationships alive. The pain and the loneliness of memory.  The Empty Room seems to stand for our strongest relationship – which, once full, is now without one of the partners. It’s the struggle to let go when someone else has and the pain and pleasure that come with being left alone with our imaginations.  How can you forget, when it is so easy to remember?  And what is a memory but the unobtainable past ?- a living echo of a dead past.  Like a black and white photograph in a technicolour world, the central lyric sticks in the head:

You were burning, now you’re black and grey

Empty Room

More to follow….


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