Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs, topped the Canadian, British and American music charts this week, displacing rapper Eminem. The Montreal septet's success, despite a music industry increasingly dependent on reality TV, ring tones or advertising alliances to sell its product, is a testament to the band's vision and ambition.
The band is led by Win Butler, a Texas transplant (with his bandmate brother Will) and former McGill University student. In Montreal, he met and married Régine Chassagne, a Haitian-Canadian multi-instrumentalist, and they have remained the core of Arcade Fire.
As a collaboration though, Arcade Fire has reached beyond the unlikely love of its co-founders. The band's full-time line-up and guests trade instruments with ease, and their prowess is in evidence in The Suburbs' symphonic arrangements. The sound is propulsive, with chiming melodies and classic rock touches, like an organ / string / electric guitar coda to "Modern Man." For a sing-along, instead of a happy "Sha-La-La," Arcade Fire offers "Ro-Co-Co," sung with decided menace.
But it is the themes of The Suburbs - a meditation on memory and alienation - that has won the band a larger audience. On "Sprawl I (Flatland)," Win Butler sings of taking "a drive into the sprawl / to find the places we used to play." The sense of loss comes together in beautiful imagery and rhyme, with choruses such as "I feel like I've been living in / A city with no children in it / A garden left for ruin by a billionaire inside of a private prison."
It's not just a screed against suburban upbringing, but a grappling with the contradictions of growing up. At the same time, The Suburbs appeals across generations, indeed to anyone who has ever dreamed of escape.
Arcade Fire has converted most critics and rock's biggest stars - U2; Bruce Springsteen - and that has led to a predictable backlash. Aggrieved Facebook postings call Arcade Fire "turgid and self-important" or "the epitome of hipsterism … and all other isms."
But if music does not move us to despair, imagine and hope, why do we listen to it? Arcade Fire summons the full range of human emotion. Grandiosity has never sounded so good.
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