On The Arcade Fire and Subtlety

The Arcade Fire’s latest album, “The Suburbs,” has incited a debate among music critics, chiefly over the band’s lyrical subtlety — or lack thereof.

While the album hauled in largely positive reviews, a sizable subset of critics accused the band of producing an overly simple message: “suburbs bad/city good.”

The Boston Phoenix’s Jonathan Donaldson, in his lukewarm review, writes:

And with titles like “Suburban War” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Be)” — which rhymes “sprawl” with “shopping malls” — there’s not a lot of nuance.

Thomas Britt of Pop Matters adds:
Yet The Suburbs’ humorless, myopic critique of modern youth and suburban life is too empty a concept to sustain a 16-track album, and the band makes a big misstep by overestimating the impact of Butler’s musings, which here consist of repeated (but not varied) thoughts about learning to drive, unimpressed kids, and a vague “suburban war”.
And Sam Sutherland of the Alternative Press weighs in:
…The Suburbs could have been compressed into a focused, stinging album, but as it stands, the band’s tendency to dip into art-school pretentiousness and tired lyrical clichés drags the whole ship down.
Critics are essentially arguing that both the leitmotif and the details of the album are too obvious. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler grew up in the suburbs of Houston before eventually moving to Montreal. Between Butler’s background and the title of the album, it’s all to easy for the media and fans to create a meta-narrative about “The Suburbs,” which may or may not resemble the actual narrative in the text.

We do this with albums all the time. We read the press release, give a cursory listen, and decide we know what the album’s all about. The Arcade Fire’s previous release, “Neon Bible,” was their political coming-out party. “Achtung Baby” was U2 discovering irony. “In Utero” was Kurt Cobain trying to deal with newfound success and fame.

These meta-narratives are at least in the neighborhood of being right a fair amount of the time, but they can also be wrong, and even way off base. It’s too easy to swallow a capsule of soundbites and reviews and regurgitate the popular meme about a piece of art/entertainment. So we don’t delve into the subtext.

So it is with “The Suburbs.” Those who criticize the Arcade Fire for lack of nuance are missing the point in two ways:

1) They’re missing a lot of the lyrics and focusing on only a few, and

2) They’re assuming that a lack of subtlety is a bad thing.

We’ll address the first point first. The album’s opening lyrics, on the title track, set the tone:

In the suburbs, I
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving

You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting
In a suburban war
Your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored

Anytime you call your album “The Suburbs,” and write about certain aspects of suburban life, you’re essentially asking for the reception that The Arcade Fire have received. You’re taking your place in the pantheon with the Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement and every other band that wrote songs about being a white, middle-class suburban teenager. And there’s certainly a lot on this album that sets up and frames a suburbs v. city contrast.

In particular, the synth-heavy Sprawl II takes a somewhat clumsy, rebellious stance that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 14-year-old’s scribbles:

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim towards the surface
‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, “come and find your kind!”

* I still love this song in spite of the clumsiness, or maybe even because of it.

So, critics aren’t entirely off-base. But the album takes a broader look at our culture than a simple urban/suburban standoff — broader too than Neon Bible’s red state/blue state call to arms.

The rage that Win Butler showcased on Neon Bible has metastasized into something deeper, something sadder. There’s a resigned weariness to much of “The Suburbs.” And in the few, classic-Arcade Fire anthems, the band seems to be examining its old innocence and optimism from a cynical distance. “Ready to Start” sounds like an exhausted, twenty-years-burning-down-the-road take on “Rebellion.”

A sense of hopelessness permeates the album, and some of its characters wouldn’t feel out of place on “Nebraska” — their psyches, at least, if not their circumstances. In the end, “The Suburbs” isn’t about the oppressive nature of America’s mid-size towns, or even the oppressive nature of America itself. It’s about the oppressive nature of life, and it’s a bigger swing than the band has previously taken.

And this is a band that takes big swings, and as such, it’s not a band that particularly concerns itself with subtlety, at least lyrically.

Win Butler and Régine Chassagne speak in grand statements. Their music isn’t filled with the evocative details that paint pictures of everyday life. They deal in panorama, not snapshots. Carpet-bombing, not small arms.

To criticize them for that trait is to miss the point completely. To claim that the Arcade Fire lacks subtlety is like saying that the Beatles wrote too many love songs, or that Guns N Roses were misogynistic. Lack of subtlety is Arcade Fire’s defining trait — and it’s what makes them great when they are indeed great.

Rock and roll as a form does not inherently demand subtlety. Rock works best when dealing in the wide open spaces of U2, Springsteen and Pearl Jam. And that’s Arcade Fire’s lineage: the arena rock greats.

Lyrics don’t have to be subtle to be good. I’m not arguing against subtlety — subtlety is fine. Detail-rich songs are fine. They can be excellent. But that’s not all there is. Lyrics, or poetry, don’t have to be one way. In this case, critics of “The Suburbs” want it to be one way — but it’s the other way.

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Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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