When Arcade Fire turned up in 2004, it was with nothing less than the most uplifting reflection on mortality ever put to record, the elegiac yet hopeful Funeral. Their 2007 follow-up Neon Bible was less focused, but more anthemic â€” tracks like â€œKeep the Car Runningâ€ soared, buoyed by the driving, almost reckless strings and pianos behind vocalists Win Butler and RÃ©gine Chassagne.
Now theyâ€™re back in concept-album territory with The Suburbs (Merge Records), and while suburban sprawl might seem like a more prosaic subject than the meaning of life and death, their 16-song exploration of the ennui and misspent youth in the rolling developments beyond Americaâ€™s cities make it almost as fascinating.
While the album may lack the dynamic anthems that marked Bible â€” with 16 tracks, itâ€™s harder for the standout songs to break out of the mix â€” The Suburbs does make up for it in thematic ingenuity. It feels in some ways like the flip side to Lou Reedâ€™s New York (1989) â€” instead of exposing the underbelly of urban existence, Arcade Fire turns a microscope on the suburban life their classmates warned them about in art school.
Itâ€™s telling that the theme of â€œsuburban warâ€ turns up well beyond the song of that name, including in the incongruously jaunty title track (â€œby the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored,â€ sings Butler). The album seems populated from front to back with people whose comfortable lives in â€œhouses built in the â€™70sâ€ have cost them their identities â€” in â€œSuburban War,â€ Butler sings â€œAll my old friends, they donâ€™t know me now.â€
Their counterpoint are the â€œmodern kidsâ€ of songs like â€œRococo,â€ who â€œuse great big words that they donâ€™t understand.â€ Prone to â€œstanding with their arms folded tightâ€ â€” as the band sings on â€œMonth of May,â€ one of the few all-out rockers on the album â€” they have â€œso much pain for someone so young.â€ But pain isnâ€™t limited to a particular age group in the Arcade Fire universe.
The anchor of The Suburbs is â€œSprawlâ€ parts I and II â€” the first, a moody, meditative dirge where the narrator goes searching for the house of his birth, but canâ€™t â€œread the number in the dark.â€ Itâ€™s a bleak painting of lost innocence â€” almost too much so â€” but in part II, Chassagne brightens the mood with a Blondie/Abba vibe that seems optimistic even as it laments a life spent lived â€œon the surface.â€
Itâ€™s one of several tracks thatâ€™s markedly slicker than Arcade Fireâ€™s previous work â€” they famously began their career recording in a Maine barn, but thereâ€™s not a song in this collection that doesnâ€™t sound exquisitely studio-produced. That doesnâ€™t mean their Talking Heads-meets-Springsteen symphonic mythologizing isnâ€™t still compelling, but â€œThe Suburbsâ€ might have been an even better album with fewer songs, recorded with more abandon.
But thatâ€™s quibbling. In this day and age, to have such an ambitious, literate work from a band still interested in exploring themes beyond love and lust â€” in a carefully orchestrated cycle of songs â€” is nothing less than a wonder, not to mention a pleasure.
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