Arcade Fire prods fans to go out into that good night | NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
By RAMONA FANKHAUSER
South Whidbey Record Columnist
August 13, 2010 · Updated 4:20 PM
I sit here at my laptop, typing, all the while surrounded by the computer’s enveloping blue glow, as Arcade Fire’s Win Butler softly sings:I used to sleep at night/ before the flashing light settled deep in my brain.
Heavy words, and if you let them sink in, it’s hard to escape their penetrating gaze. Arcade Fire’s quietly brilliant new album “The Suburbs” is a strikingly bold compendium of many such statements, bursting at the edges with both cries of defiant protest, and voices often seeped in eerie unease at the direction our civilization is headed, a direction rife with instant gratification and disturbing indifference.
We are living in a nation in which only 52 percent of citizens aged 18 to 29 cast their ballots in the 2008 election, according to the national exit poll. The question of what exactly is causing this kind of intense and growing societal apathy is explored by these musicians with nearly flawless depth, unfettered realism and charmingly self-deprecating good humor.
The tune “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a clever critique of ’80s materialism, and the present-day rampant consumerism such ideals have wrought. Framed on the surface as a sparkly disco confessional, the song presents a fiercely vehement answer to heedless urban expansion. Backed by spattering synths, Regine Chassagne sounds like a distressed, yet insistent Cyndi Lauper as she cries, nearly screaming by the end of the song: Living in the sprawl/ The dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight/ I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.
Today’s mercenary atmosphere is a world seemingly teeming with life, filled with pulsating lights, a world in which advertisers create commercials that are, in the words of essayist David Foster Wallace, so much “prettier, livelier, full of enough rapidly juxtaposed visual quanta ... [that they are] becoming more like entertaining films.”
In the end, the inherent emptiness of such reckless vapidity proves inescapable. Weaving gracefully in and out of songs, our heroes search desperately in the suburbs for some kind of lasting memory, a sense of home to hold onto. But upon returning to “these towns they built to change,” all semblances of the past have vanished and they are left with a bleakly unrecognizable landscape.
It’s all fodder for beautiful narrative, this talk of memory and childhood, and the Proustian subject matter gives rise to some of the album’s most poignant and ephemeral moments. “Sprawl I (Flatlands)” is a prime example of affecting lyricism. There is a hesitant vulnerability coupled with confused anger that perfectly captures both the paradoxical experience of adolescence and the later-life sadness of fading recollections. The song is a mournful, down-tempo scorcher, complete with aching strings that sigh in the background. Butler’s delivery is at times almost humorously grandiose, yet instantly gripping. As he confronts a nosy cop by spouting lofty philosophical musings, the effect is unexpectedly touching. Here we find a courageous defender of sincerity in the song’s undeniably broken and angry protagonist.
It seems that despite the obvious connotations of gloom and emptiness, there are deep underpinnings of hope, a gently persistent hope that refuses to fade. Our current generation has been widely criticized for our apparent apathy and cynicism, and many chalk it up to the current anxiety-ridden political climate or the crushing pressure to succeed that is placed on today’s youth.
However, the truth is that such attitudes are not irreversible. Hidden within “The Suburbs,” the prevailing message proves to be much more rallying cry than elegy.
The lyrically and sonically aggressive “Month of May” bravely calls the cynics out on their bluff. Biting guitars and infectious hooks are accompanied by tunefully droning harmonies while Butler yelps: So young, so young/ So much pain for someone so young/ Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light/ But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
A more gentle commentary is found in the dreamlike “Half Light I.”
Backed by swelling strings, the singers wax poetic and speak of breaking free from the confining walls of their houses and escaping into the night. They reflect upon how different the uniform streets and buildings look in the hazy moonlight, as if everything were starting anew. At the end, the music softly fades to the chant: We are not asleep/ We are in the streets, like a crowd of protestors with perfect intonation.
The comforting freedom of darkness is a recurring theme, as is the necessity and the resulting joy of a return to the untamed natural world that both grounds us and releases us.
This seems at the heart of the message, that in order to truly wake up, we must force ourselves to surrender to the undefined possibilities that lie before us, while the time still remains.
For now, I’m off to follow some sage advice, and to meditate upon the closing words of the hauntingly beautiful, bluesy pounder, “Deep Blue”:Hey, put the laptop down for a while/ In the night, there is something wild/ I feel it/ It’s leaving me.
Get the disc at Joe’s Island Music in Langley.