Since exploding onto the world stage in 2004 with their game-changing debut Funeral, Arcade Fire have worked to justify the hype of a million bloggers and become not only the definitive, but the greatest band of their time. On The Suburbs, their third release in twice as many years, they just about succeed.
Funeral dealt with the innocence that is lost to grief in times of mourning, and its follow-up Neon Bible wrestled with the anger that comes with trying to bring those emotions to bear on the larger world, and its wars and politics. While giving the children of America a shoulder to cry on doesn't seem like it should fall on a musical collective from Montreal, it's important to remember that singer Win Butler and his bandmate and brother Will originally hail from the suburbs of Houston — and that's exactly the place this record tries to take you.
The breezy shuffle and saloon piano that open the album, as if already in progress, suggest this might not be as urgent an affair as the band's previous records. But the truth is they've just found a way to disguise it. On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire — at least relatively speaking — discover the subtlety that evaded their earlier work. Gone are the obvious sweeping gestures that defined anthems like "Wake Up" or "Rebellion (Lies)," and front-of-mix pipe organs and garbled production that drove home the religious and social confusion of Neon Bible. Even with those elements stripped away, the band still retains its tortured emotional core and, most importantly, its sense of scale through a long, dense and sprawling record that, instead of escaping to imagination or fantasy as on previous efforts, confronts the ordinary world head on.
At 65 minutes, The Suburbs is a long record, but it doesn't really feel that way. Its 16 tracks effortlessly flow from one to the other, wrapped in the kind of dreamy haze that shapes the memories of a summer night — a celebration of character-building skinny dips, first kisses and boom-box-under-bedroom-window moments. Throughout, Butler takes on the voice of characters struggling to hold onto their individuality as they settle for a life without innocence or excitement, attempting to lyrically bring the joy and nostalgia of youth to terms with the soul-snatching, mundane homogeny that breeds in the endless strip malls, Walmarts and cul de sacs of suburbia.
In that sense, it's a third record not unlike that of Butler's hero Bruce Springsteen, in that it strives to find grandiosity and heroism in such ordinary struggles. The Suburbs also recalls Born to Run in that it feels like a movie — though instead of Robert Mitchum at the drive-in, it's The Lost Boys or Pump Up the Volume. Butler has obviously realized there are better ways of aping The Boss than writing a single that sounds like John Cafferty's "On the Dark Side."
While The Suburbs isn't quite as heavy-handed as its predecessors, the record still retains the band's sonic hallmarks — a simple driving rhythm section, analog synths shimmering with melody upon melody, angular guitar lines ripped straight out of The Edge's pre-Joshua Tree playbook and densely orchestrated strings that bring tension to each of Butler's husky, soul-baring admissions of vulnerability. The band's signature dramatics are still in full effect, spread across the album's grand sprawl. Despite the more subtle achievements, the band also turns up the distortion, rocking harder and faster than they ever have before, on tracks like the electrifying "Ready to Start," the frenetic anthem "Empty Room" and the rumination on indie-stardom "Month of May," which sounds like the band's take on Queens of the Stone Age. And little can prepare the listener for the Regine Chassagne-led synth-pop tour-de-force, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" — the record's obvious anthem — which sounds like the single all the kids wanted to hear on MGMT's sophomore head-scratcher but didn't, combined with Split Enz's "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" and every rousing new-wave romp from "Enola Gay" to "In a Big Country." A truly exhilarating, jaw-to-floor track.
Still, the record isn't without somber, down-tempo meditations. Centerpiece cuts like "Modern Man," "Half Light," the stunning "Suburban War" and the creepily cheerful "Wasted Hours" not only contain the record's most compelling moments, but also some of its biggest hooks. The songs are catchy, each standing out as an ear-worm all its own, while also working as part of a bigger picture that, with every repeated listen, makes The Suburbs feel like a record you've had, and will continue to have, in your collection for years. With now three bona fide long players under their collective belt, Arcade Fire have not only fulfilled the promise of Funeral's hype, but, in an era of singles and ringtones, cemented themselves as one of the few true album-oriented bands.
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