Arcade Fire shocked the Grammy Awards earlier this year by becoming the first indie act to ever win the album of the year award for The Suburbs. They did it in grand style too; after being subjected to hours of lip-synched gloss and drivel, the Fire showed the music industry — and whoever lasted the ordeal beforehand — what a rock show is all about with their stunning performance of the neo-punk “Month of May”. They were backstage when the award was announced, and then stayed for an encore performance of “Ready to Start”. It was a performance to vindicate obnoxious hipsters everywhere, and gave some hope that someone in the industry has some decent taste.
The Suburbs is a solid collection and was a welcome respite from the pedantic and self-righteous Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s cliched take on George Bush’s war on terror, Iraq, etc. Like their 2004 masterpiece Funeral, The Suburbs returns to a more intimate vantage, with a focus on life in, er, the suburbs. And they do it well. They are a great band who plays their music honestly and without formula. They put on a wonderful live show to boot, as their Grammy performances attest, and their praise is well earned.
Unfortunately, unlike Funeral, which was developed during a time when several family members of the band coincidentally passed away, The Suburbs message rings hollow. Frontman Win Butler grew up in an affluent Houston suburb before being shipped off to an elite East Coast prep school, but he writes about the place as if he’s never been before. They write of “sprawl” and “shopping malls” and “sprawl” and how their lives are empty and meaningless, which has been done a thousand times before. I grew up on the farm but I could’ve told the same story based on what popular culture has to say about bedroom communities.
What about the people who live there? Butler %co. don’t even come close to telling us a story. We’re left with an impression of physical space and its effect on people who don’t want to be there, but we don’t have a better idea of anyone who actually belongs in the suburbs.
For a more honest telling of suburbanites, you would be better going off of Ben Folds’ 2001 release Rockin’ the Suburbs. Sure, it’s campy and the music, while enjoyable, doesn’t compare to Arcade Fire’s swirling dervish of sound. But his stories are compelling, drawing your interest to the minutiae of suburban life. Folds brings the suburbs alive, making fun of the people without mocking them. Instead of displaying self-pity and loneliness, Folds exudes respect for the humanity of the place, just as Funeral exuded their love for family and apprehension of growing up.
The Suburbs is fine enough and well deserving of their Grammy win. It would be better, however, that they re-learn their lessons from Funeral and once again create something from the heart. It sounds corny, but that’s what people want. Even if they hail from a place Win Butler resents.