The concept album is a rather loosely-defined proposition. Some may rely on a complex narrative, involving named characters, precise settings and an evolving storyline. Others meld a looser combination of broad themes, similar musical styles or production techniques. Thus, whether a given record meets the definition of a concept album is ultimately up to the standards of the observer. Into this void enters The Suburbs by the anthemic Montreal troupe, Arcade Fire, released today.
By most measures, the 16-track offering would measure as a concept album, given the stage crafted by husband and wife co-leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, spreading out the conflict between the safe, stifling banality of the suburbs and the wild threats of the city across the collection's array of styles and moods. In journeys across various locations and times, to and from neighborhood backyards and the "hot pavement" of downtown, the unnamed narrators in the forms of Butler and Chassagne explore their apprehensions and horrors as neither environ seems capable of maintaining its hold on stability. All this takes place in a space somewhere between David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, Springsteen's Nebraska and the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness. But those seeking the tightly-crafted arrangements of Sgt. Pepper or Tommy might want to look elsewhere.
Interestingly, the collection's title track leads off by staking-out unfamiliar ground for the band, with a peppy, Benny Anderson-style piano part accounting the pending downfall of the album's namesake subject. As bombs and walls are falling in subdivisions everywhere, Butler describes his character's desire to show his daughter through the land of his youth before the earth is scorched by some unspecified force. The father as a guide to a daughter in the face of imminent danger is a recurring theme for Butler, who introduced the archetype on the band's previous release, 2006's Neon Bible. The opening number sets the path for escape - at least initially – from the suburbs that if they offer no security, the offer nothing at all, according to Butler's narrator.
Following this atypical launching point is the more common Arcade Fire sound on "Ready to Start." Cued by a vocal approach and pogo stick-guitar work in the Josh Homme vein, Butler's protagonist prepares to confront the blood-sucking businessmen and late nights of the city. Its imbued with the same directional energy that informed the group's biggest track off Neon Bible, "Keep the Car Running." Conversely, the Cure-flavored "Modern Man" introduces a muted 80's sound that underscores the character's self-doubt and concerns of wasted time, the latter of which becomes a theme explored on later tracks such as Chassagne's frenetic "Empty Room," with its hyper strings and full-throated choruses; the dusty trail, country-and-western ballad "Wasted Hours;" and "We Used to Wait," with its paranoid, punchy keyboards and irregular beat that points to the Talking Heads. In these subset of cuts, the participants' efforts to find stability – let alone fulfillment – are increasingly futile.
Meanwhile, the album's characters negotiate the city's "modern kids," shouting their battle cry of "Rococo," as a menacing wind unites their travails in "Month of May" and Chassagne's "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," strongly patterned of the recent work of the Toronto quartet, Metric, with its techno-rock blend. The city again offers no relief in "City With No Children," with Butler's vocals eerily replicating the tenor of Sheila Divine/Dear Leader frontman Aaron Perrino. It's the album's most fully realized number as a stand-alone piece, although I could have used some added oomph from the rhythm section, as the tune doesn't advance much in pace or intensity as it builds.
At the same time, the suburbs offer no respite from the dangers of the city, as illustrated in "Suburban War," not as much as the latter's threats to physical survival, but rather a soul-crushing blockade to emotional growth and satisfaction where friendships don't endure past sad divisions. "Month of May" is likewise a violent account of the brink of the suburbs' collapse – akin to the fervor displayed in Neon Bible's "(Antichrist Television Blues)" – and the dual-part "Sprawl" describes the characters' growing fear, where the distinctions between suburbs and city are dissolved as "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there's no end in sight."
At its zenith, The Suburbs presents a fleeting nod to one of the most iconic concept albums of all in its epilogue, "The Suburbs (continued)." The Dark Side of the Moon flavor is unmistakable despite the track's brevity at just under a minute and a half. In all, the collection of focused imagery presented by seven-piece ensemble (their precise duties in the collective has never been well-defined due to their wide-ranging talents) is actually more accessible than much of the group's previous work, without the detours to pockets of the avant garde that defined parts of Neon Bible and its predecessor, 2004's Funeral. And much like The Decemberists' theatrical The Hazards of Love, this work is best understood in composite, rather than each track's individual functionality.
Come for: "Ready to Start"
Stay for: "City With No Children"
You'll be surprised by: "Wasted Hours"