"Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" MTV World Stage, 2010
I’ve read some very harsh criticism of the new Arcade Fire album that basically makes it out to be this big blinking sign reading SUBURBS BAD, CITY GOOD. I feel like that misses the point somewhat. There’s not a lot of ambiguity on the album, but it’s not quite as reductive as that. “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” the album’s best and most aesthetically surprising song, essentially summarizes the entire record, and it’s basically the same song we’ve heard hundreds of times in rock music: “I’m bored with my life! I want to express myself! I want escape! I want excitement! I want salvation!” When I was a teenager living in the suburbs, this song was “Silent Kid,” it was “1979,” it was “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” This is just an essential part of rock and pop music; it’s a major part of the human condition. Does the record overstate the promise of the artsy city life? Yes, of course. Does it over-romanticize the purity of youth, and state a distrust for the institutions of adult life? Sure. But this is rock music, and that’s par for the course.
“Mountains Beyond Mountains” is beautiful and effective in part because it is fairly nuanced — you get the desire to leave, the dissatisfaction with the sprawl and the malls and the endless nothing-much that characterizes so much of the space in North America, but more than anything, you hear this excitement for possibility and change. The album starts out in an idyllic rut, but it ends with this song which looks off to the future, hoping for something better. The singer is still stuck in the same old place, but she’s got a destination in mind, and suddenly the world just has more of a sparkle to it.
(Originally posted on 8/5/2010)