It’s no great revelation that the American suburb, that realm of domesticity created by the white flight of the 1950s and 60s, can be a dehumanizing place filled with tedium and pain behind a facade of a happy middle-class lifestyle. In fact, the topic has been something of a pet point of reflection in pop culture for couple decades at least, from Mad Men to Revolutionary Road to The Ice Storm and American Beauty.
And so it’s inevitable that some commentators will scoff at The Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, The Suburbs, for treading well-worn ground. But pop music, for the most part, has never been about the necessity of the high concept, has it? It’s not like the love song or the breakup song or songs about war being bad are going away any time soon. These songs are all about feelings. And The Suburbs is possibly the best example of an album really capturing a feeling since The Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral.
What’s really amazing about the Arcade Fire’s three albums is how much of a piece they feel, like each one is a different novel in a series or season in a serialized TV show like “The Wire.” They even seem to follow the same characters around as they move through the ends of their childhood (Funeral), the anger over empty culture and political corruption that comes with college and early adulthood (Neon Bible), and now the crushing boredom and ennui that comes with having settled down and learned to “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock” as Regine Chassagne so beautifully sings in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”
Maybe the first thing any of us learn in a playwriting class or a fiction-writing course is never to make your characters bored, since bored characters generally lead to a bored audience. But The Arcade Fire figures out how to thread the needle here. These songs about suburbanites who start “wars” over music just to feel something and have something to do are drenched with nostalgia. Every song on this album feels instantly familiar, not so much in that they’re derivative, but just because they feel like something a teenage older brother might have pumped out of his truck’s tape deck as he cruised around the culdesac, albeit with a lot more orchestration. And given that your older brother was into Red Rider and Bruce Springsteen rather than Megadeth and Metallica.
Some of the songs on “The Suburbs” are shockingly catchy — I find myself humming “Rococo” and “City With No Children” on the reg — despite the fact that their lyrics are about as sad as they can be (it’s the old sad-lyrics-happy-music formula perfected on The Clash’s “Train in Vain” all those years ago). And the songs you don’t find yourself humming you won’t help but find beautiful. It’s as enjoyable an experience you can have hearing someone’s regrets about lost time and lost youth.
You think: It’ll probably be the album of the year.