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In a Lonely Place

Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album

Gabriel Jones
They come into your town, they help you epic down, Arcade Fire is an American band.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 8/4/2010

Arcade Fire

Merriweather Post Pavilion, Aug. 6.

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"I dreamt that I drove home to Houston/ on a highway underground/ there was no light that we could see/ as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." So sings Arcade Fire's Win Butler on the band's new record, The Suburbs (Merge), dream-state translating the old cliché, "you can't go home again." And it is part of an idea on what amounts to a concept album that is 100 times more nebulous and sophisticated than its title--and a handful of cheap digs within the record--might suggest.

People love shitting on the 'burbs: Effing American Idiot is a Broadway show now. (Honestly, putting The Suburbs on, this writer was expecting a more nuanced version of just that.) But accepting them, realizing that you might actually be them, and then realizing that the car is dead and the tunnel is too long and dark and, no, you can't go home again no matter how much you want or even need to, is the core of Arcade Fire's potent and unexpectedly poignant tome of displacement and distorted nostalgia.

By this, its third full-length record, Montreal's Arcade Fire has become a significantly different band. In particular, it's become a conspicuously American band. The album opens with what could only be described as barroom piano hanging above an almost whimsical, TV-esque musical theme that suggests, "Aw, shucks." Listening on through the disc, at least a couple of times you might think, Springsteen.

"The kids want to be so hard/ In my dreams we're still screaming/ Running through the yard," Butler sings on the title-track opener, breaking into melodramatic falsetto as if to disown as soon as possible his lofty dramatics of yore. Instead, you're imagining Lone Star flags dangling in the background with maybe even an above-ground swimming pool in the scene for good measure. "The cities we live in could be distant stars," he sings later on "Suburban War."

Nostalgia is nothing new for this band: Breakout album Funeral was shrouded in the bleakest kind. Its drama sounds cheap now, a bag of musical tricks nicking on postrock, postpunk, and classic indie in equal measure. "Sometimes we remember our bedrooms/ and our parent's bedrooms/ and the bedrooms of our friends/ sometimes we think of bedrooms, whatever happened to them?" Butler sang on "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" then, soaking in the kind of Douglas Coupland brand of melancholic-but-precious detachment. But nostalgia is also a pretty expected side effect when you compose an entire album about death.

It's hard to say that Suburbs is even all that much about the actual suburbs. That is, you don't have to be from there to get the kind of displacement Butler writes about. Urban flight, re-urbanization, exurbanization, gentrification, the slow painful death of rural America--no one feels at home anymore. It's hard to know from this record if its writers ever even had that feeling themselves. (The suburban poles of being bored and running and screaming through yards are as much clichés as anything in American Beauty.) At the very least, it feels like an abstract idea of having a sense of place, or a very idealized version of it.

Also, note that Arcade Fire appears to have some kind of chip on its shoulder after five years of rapidly ascending to be the sort of indie band that can headline an amphitheater. On "Rococo," Butler sings of the "modern kids": "They seem so wild but they're so tame/ They'll be moving towards you with their colors all the same." On "Ready to Start," he adds, "Businessmen drink my blood/ Like the kids in art school said they would/ And I guess I'll just begin again." But he doesn't know what to begin, what he's ready to start.

The problem is, he doesn't want to be anywhere. Ready, sure, but nothing seems good enough for Butler. "Some cities make you lose your head/ Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead/ And what was that line you said/ Wishing you were anywhere but here," he sings in "Wasted Hours."

If you can't already tell, The Suburbs is as depressing as Funeral was--but a less pretty and more claustrophobic kind of depressing. There's nothing like a resolution here, just the sense that things will just get worse and wherever you are you're hopelessly lost. It's done well enough to inspire cold discomfort, hold a listener in that place, and make him or her come back to it. From "Sprawl 1 (Flatland)": "The last defender of the sprawl/ Said, 'well where do you kids live?'/ Well sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth/ Been searching every corner of the Earth."

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