If the dominant mood of their debut Funeral was one of celebration, and that of Neon Bible one of anxiety, then the prevailing tone of The Suburbs is of a more reflective, nostalgic bent – as if rumination upon the past might indeed offer a valid refuge from the uncertainties and worries of the present.
The seeds of the album apparently lay in Win Butler's re-connection with a friend from his youth in Houston, Texas, and his curiosity about how that past might appear to him today. But as we know, you can't go back home without sacrificing certain elements of your own past – the path you used to take through the woods now leads to an industrial estate, and the roads you used to drive appear so much more... suburban than they were when you lived there.
That's the journey Butler and his band have taken on The Suburbs; and the surprising thing is that they've managed to come away from the trip not entirely disappointed, and in certain respects cheerfully confirmed in the value of what might be considered the fecklessness of youth. Wasting time, it seems, is not a waste of time at all. While the rolling, jaunty piano of the opening title-track underscores a disenchanted yearning to see "all of those houses built in the Seventies fall", by the closing reprise Butler is certain that if he could have back "all the time that we wasted, I'd love to waste it again and again and again".
This is a theme to which the album returns constantly in songs such as "We Used To Wait", "Wasted Hours" and even the Bowie-esque "Month Of May", where Butler sees "kids are still standing with their arms full of time". It's a belated recognition of the value of reflection and contemplation, for which youth affords so much potential, but which becomes rarer with each passing day, as adulthood imposes its own priorities. Hence the mixed messages in a song like "Rococo", where fear of a feral generation is tempered by a grudging admiration for their ambition, even if they do use "great big words that they don't understand". At least they're using them.
The anxieties of Neon Bible still lurk in some of these songs – the unease of the "Modern Man" is rendered with the deceptive naivety of Talking Heads, and the futile search for "the places we used to play" in "Sprawl 1 (Flatland)" is beautifully evoked by shimmering strings. But part of the band's appeal derives from its ability to balance music and emotions in poised equilibrium while grasping confidently for the future, so the misgivings are forever being swept aside by hope.
Playing the character of a trapped suburbanite with unfulfilled dreams, Regine Chassenet sings in "Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" about how "these days my life, I feel it has no purpose; but late at night these feelings swim to the surface". As if to suggest those lurking ambitions, it's sung over cycling synthesisers, in the manner of some self-assertive Euro electro-diva. Despite it all, she will survive.
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