There is something in producing an album that, from start to finish, enthralls two years after its initial release. Arcade Fire won an album of the year Grammy for this album last year and with good reason. There are albums that riff on a theme (‘The Suburbs’) to impressive effect and then there are albums like this one which take in everything, all the emotions and capitalism and houses and strip malls and teenage love and musical history and hipster qualities and everyday patriotism and gun violence and the general complexities of everyday life in Northern America and turn it all into something as devastatingly wonderful as this, the third studio album from the group that plenty might love to hate but which really serve up no reason for hate. I, too, tried to resist the charms of Arcade Fire for the longest time only to forfeit to the brilliance of ‘The Suburbs’. I have yet to look elsewhere into their not insignificant discography for fear of confronting something I might not like. Within the bounds of the sixteen tracks of ‘The Suburbs’ I am comfortable, happy, content.
‘Sprawl II’ might seem an odd choice. Going back to this seminal album, there are earlier, better known tracks than this guitar-and-synth driven track to post on, tracks about which potentially more could be said on cultural impact and musical legacy. But ‘Sprawl II’, the penultimate song on the record and the only one which doesn’t feature Win Butler on vocal duties for its entirety, has always intrigued me. So embedded in my musical lexicon is the album that I readily forget that certain songs come from it. This is one such song. There have been at least three occasions where I’ve heard the tune on the radio or on someone else’s speakers and actively inquired who it was by, only to look like a complete fool when the answer is so obviously delivered. Part of the hazy recollection on my part and the scorn on the part of whoever’s answering has to do, I think, with this track’s timeless, classic quality. Tucked away near the end of an album lauded for other tracks like ‘Ready To Start’ and ‘Into The Wilderness’, ‘Sprawl II’ strikes me as one of the Arcade Fire songs most likely to endure.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about Régine Chassagne’s wistful delivery that makes this track such a powerful one. There is a certain 80’s feel to the reverberating vocals (backed by harmonies, I now realise, which were likely provided by Win) that lends the whole piece a dusky, slightly mysterious feel. But Arcade Fire do mystery as a day job. Lyrics which chart the treachery of mediocrity don’t necessarily make for a standout track either and yet, there is a poignancy to ‘living in the sprawl’, a definite familiarity to the ‘dead shopping malls’ Chassagne paints in an occasionally haunting, always compelling narrative. Beyond the lyrics and their deliver, though, lies the real crux of this song’s beauty; the synth riff which moves, slowly, around a central theme while an unrelenting drumbeat reiterates the monotony which birthed this song. It is never boring, like the lifestyle the track desperately laments, but instead is transfixing in its rhythm and repetitiveness. This is what happens when drudgery meets creativity. The result is understated but pretty, unremarkable but impossible to get out of your head. In a world of paradoxes, Arcade Fire reign supreme.
Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)