By the time you read this sentence, Merge Records—the little independent imprint that started in Chapel Hill 21 years ago to sell cassettes and vinyl singles by local bands—might have its first best-selling album.
The label, now a relative empire headquartered in a comfortable old building at the corner of Mangum and Chapel Hill streets in downtown Durham, has come close to the Billboard 200's top spot before, first with Neon Bible, the second album by Montreal band The Arcade Fire, and then with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, by Texas' Spoon. But the third album by The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs, was expected to sell as many as 140,000 copies last week, according to Billboard magazine, possibly unseating metal band Avenged Sevenfold and rappers Eminem and Rick Ross for No. 1.
And why not? The Suburbs—enjoyable, fine, sort of empty—plays like an album culled from National Public Radio editorials about personal nostalgia and public malfeasance. That is, sex excepted, it's the stuff that sells best.
Whether The Arcade Fire secures No. 1 is mostly immaterial. What's more notable and poetic is the possibility that it might happen. The Arcade Fire has a somewhat simple record deal with Merge, where the band and label split profits from each LP. The Arcade Fire handles most everything else—production, promotion, licensing and touring decisions—that an antiquated mega-label would have overseen just a decade ago.
"They've been in the position almost their whole recording career to not do anything they don't want to do, which makes them pretty unique at this period of history," Merge co-owner Mac McCaughan told The New York Times last week.
Indeed, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler has howled often about individual empowerment—"Set my spirit free," went the final coda of the band's second album. And now that sort of restless independence and autonomy has made them North America's answer to Radiohead. They're a rare union of commercial and critical success. To wit, the band sold out two shows last week at New York's Madison Square Garden, gigs previewed with lengthy features in the Times and Rolling Stone and almost unanimously enthusiastic, high-profile reviews of The Suburbs.
If an album from the indie orbit were ever destined to become a best-seller, it is The Suburbs. Vampire Weekend's Contra also took top sales honors earlier this year, but it's an album full of references to the haute couture and exotic flair. From start to finish, though, The Suburbs is an album about the sorts of neighborhoods where, in 2000, 50 percent of all Americans lived—monotonous houses, listless community life, increasing poverty. The album's cover depicts the sunset fading behind a car and a nondescript sedan and a brick ranch home, and its catchiest tune—a bittersweet twist on Blondie's "Heart of Glass," led by Butler's songwriting partner and wife, Régine Chassagne—details "dead shopping malls [that] rise like mountains beyond mountains." Suburban or not, the images resonate.
But that's about as far as it goes. The Suburbs is a hedged text, an ideological morass that mixes tepid condemnation of and concession to the erosive modern age while refusing any sort of personal responsibility for it. The Arcade Fire waffles on the suburbs, embracing and excoriating the idea as it suits their needs. Butler and Chassagne, for instance, seem mostly romantic about their own suburban youth—"all those wasted hours we used to know" and the tactile, old-fashioned thrill of signing, sending and receiving letters in the post.
The problems stem from the rest of the world: "First they built the road/ then they built the town," Butler sings, just before observing, "We can't win. They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in." Here are the middle-aged ex-rebels, pointing the fingers all around. The kids are educated but ignorant, Butler insists, wont to malapropisms and empty sloganeering. The modern man has become "a record that's skipping," his routine set on repeat, doing things simply because he can't think past his habits.
Butler is quick to let us know these aren't his issues, even suggesting that he might relive youth better than those living it now. Regarding a video shoot in Texas several weeks ago, Butler told Pitchfork Media, "It was cool to revert to being a 15-year-old for a little while." Here, he closes the album by longing for that return: "If I could have it back/ all the time that we wasted/ I'd only waste it again."
Like each of The Arcade Fire's albums, The Suburbs is enjoyable enough, capturing a band with the bravado to explore bombast. Strings, horns and keyboards lift the hooks toward the heavens, and the production—while defiantly analogue and warm—attempts to make every song an anthem, no apologies required. Anxious tunes like "Modern Man" clench like shaking fists. Both "Empty Room" and "City With No Children" race with breathless wonder. The penultimate "Suburban War" delivers the sort of shouting climax that was the band's initial calling card ("surging in all the right places," New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones once described it, pansexually). There are quiet, pensive numbers, too: "Wasted Hours" is a stilted folk song with a warped summertime lope, while the somnambulant "Sprawl I (Flatland)" drifts and forebodes, Butler invoking and uncharacteristically understating some horizon danger.
If the Roman numeral in that last song title wasn't a tip-off, The Arcade Fire writes albums in the classic sense—colossal, interconnected epics where phrases from one song wrap into another, one tune fading into the next. "I'm not going to stop making albums because of some fad in digital distribution," Butler said recently. His band, then, sets out to make widescreen, timeless LPs, and their gumption—big topics and bigger sounds—has made each Arcade Fire record easy to like.
The difficulty comes when peering behind the curtain of these 16 songs—or, really, of The Arcade Fire's entire oeuvre—for very long. Like his professed songwriting heroes, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and like The Clash's Joe Strummer, to whom he's frequently been compared, Butler is an issues guy. Across his first two albums, he and Chassagne grappled with love, death, lies, family, religion, omnipotence, sex, popular entertainment and youthful vigor. These are easy, wide targets, and Butler often aims with the biggest, clunkiest ammunition possible. Unlike Dylan or The Boss at their best, subtlety and delicacy have never been his charge.
"The power's out in the heart of man/ take it from your heart/ put it in your hand," Butler beseeched on the first album. "What's the plan?" For album two's parting shot, he sang, tortured, "My body is a cage that keeps me/ from dancing with the one I love/ But my mind holds the key." The cringes only increase.
Indeed, on The Suburbs, Butler goes for it a little too much, piling stock critique atop of boring complaint as if to connect with a wide, predictable demographic. Butler sings about the impossibility of purity, Chassagne about cops keeping kids out of parks. During "City With No Children," he invokes a blockbuster film, the Old Testament, the New Testament and the ills of capitalism. During "The Suburbs" and "Half Light II (No Celebration)," he quaintly embraces the green movement. And during "Deep Blue," he delivers his manifesto against technology by embracing chess master Garry Kasparov's 1996 defeat of a supercomputer (which, of course, beat Kasparov the following year). It's a setup for the most pandering moment on a record full of them: "Hey, put your cell phone down for a while/ In the night, there is something wild/ Can you hear it breathing?/ And hey, put the laptop down for a while."
For a band whose reputation exploded thanks largely to digital channels, and who, just last week, live-streamed one of those Madison Square Garden shows via YouTube, it's another condescending, arguably dishonest moment: If they can use the Internet to mount the Billboard 200, after all, who are they to tell us not to use it, too?
The Arcade Fire was once about possibility; they still sound that way, but—egalitarian subject, best-seller be damned—they're now at the top of the pile, coldly staring down at the mess.