“HOLY s**t, I can’t believe it, we won!” Arcade Fire front man Win Butler exclaimed in front of the televised audience of the 2011 Grammy Awards, as the group picked up the award for Album of the Year while an impressed Eminem and Lady Gaga watched from the audience. 6 months earlier, The Suburbs had been released worldwide to critical acclaim. Despite this, the band still remained largely anonymous to the mainstream pop-sphere, leaving reporters of the Grammys baffled as to who this group of Canadians actually were. Nominated with the likes of Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum, they looked slightly out of place amongst the beautiful faces of MTV. Maybe it was because Arcade Fire had created one of the most important indie records of the 2010s so far, a notable achievement in comparison to the throwaway pop music that was largely represented at the Grammys in 2011.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that Arcade Fire were unknowns before The Suburbs; their 2004 debut, Funeral, created waves within the rock world for its beautifully moving tracks and indie anthems. In 2007, the diverse Neon Bible was a gigantic, dark take on modern life (and was also the album that got me into the band). But what made The Suburbs so notable was the effect it had within the music world. Later in August of the same year, the band headlined Reading and Leeds Festival. As well as their success at the Grammys, they also won big at the BRITs, as well as winning the 2011 Polaris Music Prize. The album was also listed among the best of the year by pretty much every publication. Of course, the comparisons to Radiohead’s OK Computer were thrown around, but one thing was certain; the band was force to be reckoned with in music.
But what exactly made The Suburbs so good? Without a doubt, one of the defining factors was Arcade Fire’s ensemble of guitars, bass and drums combined with strings and keys to create a signature baroque pop sound. This is shown excellently on tracks such as ‘Rococo’ and ‘Modern Man’, as well as the title track. But this idea of baroque pop is not as prevalent as on Funeral, and tracks such as ‘Ready to Start’ and ‘Month of May’ echo more of the mainstream indie dream. Elsewhere, ‘The Sprawl II’ brought in elements of electronic music, something that would be addressed in the follow-up to The Suburbs, Reflektor.
It is important to address the topic of the band’s lyrics as well. A loose concept album, The Suburbs, as the name suggests, recalls Win and Will Butler’s life as kids. Despite the solemn nature of the some of the lyrics, there is an overall feeling throughout that these can be listened through a child’s or young adult’s viewpoint. I’ve always listened to ‘Wasted Hours’ through the ears of a child stuck inside during a rainy day. ‘The Sprawl’, an epic adventure through the neighbourhood. ‘Suburban War’, teenage rebellion and segregation.
To call The Suburbs Arcade Fire’s best work would be controversial. Their albums each represent a different stage in the band’s career, and The Suburbs shows a band reminiscing about a time of innocence just before they were opened up for the entire world to see. It’s a pivotal part of their story.
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