The sun was setting and the air was sweltering as Arcade Fire took the stage at Toronto’s Center Island on August 14. Following a charged performance by local favourites The Sadies and a soulful, exuberant set by newcomer Janelle Monae, the Montreal band stepped out to thunderous applause before playing eighteen songs spanning their entire career.
Having released their third studio album The Suburbs earlier in August, this was the first time many of the songs had been performed live in Toronto, and the island concert’s huge crowd was a mix of young and old, urban, suburban, and rural. I discovered that several of the people standing next to me throughout the performance had travelled from Woodstock, Ontario: a smallish city situated in the province’s agricultural heartland — and also the biggest town nearby during much of my childhood.
On one side, Woodstock had an ever-struggling mall, which chain stores would briefly colonize before abandoning due to poor business. By the time I stopped frequenting the city after moving to Stratford for high school, the emaciated concrete structures of the strip had been completely abandoned, while the other side of the city had exploded with growth. Walmarts, Best Buys, Future Shops, and McDonalds’ had sprung from the earth, bringing with them a burgeoning sprawl of urban development. Columns of identical homes had sprouted like dandelions and the city’s old boundaries disappeared. Like in so many other cities across North America, this growth was rudely interrupted by the toppling of the global financial pyramid in 2008.
Bust and boom, boom and bust.
Win Butler, a native of a similar sprawl outside of Houston, Texas, who has fronted the Arcade Fire since its formation in 2003, once commented that there was something deeply suburban about the band’s music. “I think we have a drive to find a semblance of universality, which to me seems innate to kids from the suburbs. You relate to different kinds of things than someone who grew up in a super-rural environment or in a really dense big city, where there’s an actual culture.”
This was in 2004, predating Funeral, the album that propelled the Arcade Fire to success. Yet each record the band has produced has increasingly affirmed these words: aesthetically unbound to any particular musical haven, instead fluctuating within a pastiche of different themes, moods, and instrumentations.
Funeral is an often dark, yet ultimately uplifting album, conceived during a year when several of the band members’ relatives passed away in tragic succession. Neon Bible, the follow-up which emerged three years later, blends in its title evocations of the most synthetic and the most sacred, while its sounds layer the earthy textures of Funeral with both the electronic buzz of synthesizers and the hallowed hum of church organs. The Suburbs, the band’s newest creation, and the centerpiece of its Toronto Island show, is no less expansive, and even more ambitious.
Inspired by fraternal band-mates William and Win Butler’s childhood in the Houston sprawl, the record uses suburbia as a canvas for its explorations of consumerism, urban existence, and modernity. Like Funeral the album is heavily self-referential, with particular themes, melodies, and lyrics recurring across its sixteen tracks. But unlike Funeral, in which these connections felt somewhat spurious, there is a real structure to The Suburbs, making it the most effective Arcade Fire record to date: the opening title track is a true conceptual preamble to the rest of the record in a way that “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels),” the opening track from Funeral, was not.
The album opens with a jovial but vaguely dissonant chord progression as Butler sings:
In the suburbs I learned to drive/And you told me we’d never survive/Grab your mother’s keys we’re leavin’
You always seemed so sure/That one day we’d fight in/In a suburban war/Your part of town against mine
So you’re standin’ on the opposite shore/But by the time the first bombs fell/We were already bored
These opening stanzas, with their simultaneously sublime and dystopian overtones, set the tone for the rest of the album, which wavers between oppositional moods and emotions, sometimes meshing them together. Like the real-world sprawls in Woodstock and Houston, idyllic but sculpted with sterile precision, The Suburbs juxtaposes feelings of serenity with desolation and emptiness.
At the Toronto Island concert, the band played much of The Suburbs along with older material, with relentless energy and a powerful, symphonic sound. The rendition of the Funeral classic “Rebellion (Lies)” prompted the entire audience to repeat the melodic refrain dozens of times after the band finished playing. “Wake Up” was accompanied by a vibrant light-show which briefly turned night into day. The album’s final track (save the short epilogue “The Suburbs, Continued”) also appeared near the end of the concert. The pulsating “Sprawl II, Mountains Beyond Mountains” is a soaring sketch of a never-ending suburbia spilling over the horizon. Despite its theme, the song is somehow uplifting: the gloomy suburban wasteland left by the booms and busts of the past 50 years never sounded so glorious.
They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/Can we ever get away from the sprawl?/Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/And there’s no end in sight/I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights