The Suburbs might have been the name just of Arcade Fire’s third LP, but it could have titled the whole trilogy of releases that made up their first six years of existence. ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’, the first song on their first full-length album, opens with the lines “And if the snow / buries my neighbourhood’, an apocalyptic rendering that had attached to it a great deal of prescience: Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and their merry band of musicians couldn’t stay put forever; eventually they’d have to leave. As colleague Kevin Minofu wrote in his excellent ‘Relektor’ track review back in September, it seems they “have finally left their comfort zone to embrace the dizzying lights of the city.” If that was the suggestion, then a series of murals on big buildings, papier mâché masks at hidden salsa clubs, and, of course, this album have confirmed that.
So how do the bright-eyed darlings of the indie world fare in this metropolitan excursion? Incredibly well, it would seem, though like any sheltered first-timer finds, to make it in the city, you might need a slight image change. But of course that metaphor probably has to end here: Arcade Fire are not naïve little country kids. They are experts, industry veterans by now, with a decade of experience under their belts. They displayed that know-how to devastating effect on the run-up to the release of this album. The steady stream of obscure tidbits they leaked were unpacked and analysed by every blog from here to Quebec; you can almost visualise them packing over with laughter as the NME had near-on existential meltdowns trying to decipher what it all meant. But it worked, and the hype around this album has been gargantuan. The change in image that they underwent was entirely self-conscious and is reflected (no pun) best in their performing under the moniker of ‘The Reflektors’. This is a tacit acknowledgement of the change they’ve undergone, as well as an attempt to break loose of the tight-lipped, earnest image that has surrounded them throughout their career. It’s light-hearted and playful, two terms that would never have been associated with Arcade Fire in the past. The music showcased on this album mirrors that.
The album is a definite shift from their past. Baroque piano, symphonic backing, orchestral swells and Win Butler’s trademark wail have been their tools up till now, and they’ve served them very well, but many of those aspects have been ditched this time ‘round. Tellingly, Sarah Neufeld, their violinist, has been removed from the band’s core set-up. James Murphy was brought in, and his influence is clearly felt, particularly in the disco of ‘Reflektor’ (and David Bowie backing vocals), and on slow-burner ‘Porno’. There had been whispers that this would be their Achtung Baby or Kid A, but the narrative doesn’t exactly fit. Those were precipitated by a dissatisfaction with their bands’ old sound and fierce intra-band conflict, and the creative process that came from that was what created both of those momentous albums. This album isn’t a complete break with what has come before, and fits quite neatly into their discography. But there is certainly an element of risk involved in what they have done, and not everyone has been receptive to their new sound. While certain of their previous tracks, particularly ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, hinted at this direction, their headfirst leap into it is still the biggest musical risk this band has ever taken.
Thematically, the album also marks a break from their previous work. Arcade Fire have become masters of the concept album by this stage, with The Suburbs marking their storytelling zenith. Win became the master storyteller in elevating the microcosm of the suburb (and with it the quiet tyranny of middle-class North American life) to anthemic and grand proportions. Here he is not dealing with cars and parents anymore but life, love and death. Of course, they’ve dabbled in grand concepts before; Neon Bible was an outward-looking album, intensely political and critical of global society. But here, as opposed to coming from the perspective of someone down below looking up, Butler elevates the album, and the concepts become more abstract.
The album is, according to them, about ‘love in the reflective age’, although what exactly the ‘reflective age’ means is unclear. It seems to be about the problems of post-modernity, the vacuous nature of our relationships, the impossibility of finding truth. On ‘Reflektor’, Butler sings ‘You thought you were praying to the resurrector / turns out it was just a reflector’, a concise articulation of our age’s false idols, its pretensions, its vapidity. ‘Reflektor’, in fact, can be seen as a blueprint for the entire album, and is constantly referred to on the tracks that follow it. Butler sings on it, ‘If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for / If I can’t find you there, I don’t care’, and this imagery is drawn again on ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ are then given full articulation in ‘Afterlife’, a song about where love goes when it dies. ‘Reflektor’ also has Butler singing, “We fell alone on a stage in the reflective age”, and on ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ he laments “We know there’s a price to pay for love in the reflective age”.
The album’s artwork is a close-up of Auguste Rodin’s 1893 sculpture ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ forms part of a two-track arc with ‘Don’t Look Back (Oh Orpheus)’ that opens the second side of the album and directly references the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the most talented musician in the land, and his deceased love, Eurydice. To bring her back from death, he goes to the underworld and plays Hades a song to release her. Hades agrees, but on the precondition that she is to walk behind Orpheus and he is not allowed to look behind him. He fails in this challenge, taking an anxious glance backward, and in the process, loses her forever. The opening lines of ‘Don’t Look Back’ reference this: Régine sings, ‘Hey Orpheus! I’m behind you, don’t turn around, I can find you.’ It would be convenient to say that throughout the course of the album, Win and Régine play the parts of Orpheus and Eurydice, respectively, but that’s too easy, and not entirely true. What is true is that the spirit of this album is embodied in them and their relationship. They have always been central to the band, and their relationship dynamic has always been an interesting facet of their music, but never has it been more important than this. It feels like a Win and Régine experience more than an Arcade Fire experience, and while there isn’t a 50-50 split in vocal duties (Butler is at the helm most of the time), it still feels like a conversation, a back-and-forth, a meditation between two lovers.
One marker of this album’s strength is revealed in just how difficult it is to pick a strongest track on it. ‘Reflektor’ and ‘Afterlife’, the first two singles, are obvious choices, especially as they work so well in relation to each other. ‘Joan of Arc’ has a ridiculously catchy chorus; ‘Porno’ sounds like a modern hymn and plays like a deconstruction of modern masculinity: “Little boys with their porno, oh I know they hurt you so.” ‘Normal Person’ is this album’s ‘Ready to Start’, but is the most out-of-place song here. It’s a parody of a rock song; the riff and the lyrics are so over-the-top it’s ridiculous. It’s similar, in a way, to what Bradford Cox was doing on Monomania; he pitched up at the Deerhunter performance on Jimmy Fallon wearing fake-blood and a shaggy black wig. In the context of Reflektor, it seems more like a self-conscious send-up of the expectations that surrounded this release; Arcade Fire have never been a pure rock band, but they’ve always been embraced by rockists, probably because of the organic nature of their music. They’ve actively gone against that with this album, but they still manage to sound exactly like themselves. Even on ‘Normal Person’.
And that’s perhaps what is most important to take hold of on this album, the real crux of the matter. Arcade Fire could never have made this ten years ago. Even five years ago they would have struggled with audience receptiveness. And the fact that this new sound, this new image, has been embraced by so many shows just how over ourselves we’ve all gotten. It isn’t leading the way forward to some new musical heaven, but Arcade Fire have never been that band. Rather, it’s a zeitgeist-y, finger-on-the-pulse capturing of the mood. Anxious, terrified even, but still somehow joyous. And definitely all-embracing. It’s clear they’re shooting for something here. They no longer seem content to be just a small bunch of hurdy-gurdy wielding Canadians. But this also can’t be read as a play for all-conquering superstardom – there are too many 6-minute cuts, too much confusing tape reel and high-brow subject matter. Rather, this is Arcade Fire constructing a space at the top on their own terms. And you get the sense that they aren’t going to make the mistake of this album’s protagonist: unlike Orpheus, for Arcade Fire there is no looking back.