Arcade Fire

The Suburbs

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Merge

It’s not stretching the truth to call the Arcade Fire an “important” band. If there is any group to reach for U2’s mantle of World’s Best Band it would be this Montreal collective, delivering a third album bursting at the seams with raw emotion and stratospheric melodies.

Has a band put a debut as fully formed and nearly perfect in the past 10 years as Funeral? Springing from the emotional turmoil that dogged members of the band, Funeral combined our Bush-era neurosis with personal stories of pain and lost childhood. After three years of silence, the band returned in 2007 with Neon Bible, an effort that did not live up to Funeral’s majesty, yet did not disappoint. But Neon Bible may have pushed the band to its limits, climbing aboard Funeral’s most bombastic and theatrical moments and riding them to the extreme. Neon Bible may have been weighed down by bravado and affectation but it still yielded great songs like the heavy burst of “Intervention” and the simmering anguish of “My Body is a Cage.”

When Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler looked into the mirror in 2007, all he could see was black. However, a lot can change in three years and the band returns with the triumphant The Suburbs, a more subdued effort that features some of the group’s most intricate and best songs yet. Rather than continue on the trajectory into melodrama, Butler and company dial it down in The Suburbs, trading in histrionics and wild sentiment for a collection of songs that reference mopey New Wave synth rock to the elaborate and complex melodies of Motorik progenitors NEU!

The album begins with the stately swagger of the title track, more Hunky Dory than “Heroes.” Over melodic piano and acoustic guitar, Butler once again revisits crystalline neighborhoods, but rather than embody the scared kids of Funeral, this time Butler and company are the terrified parents, watching their children amid the familial wreckage and wounded emotions that surround. “I want a daughter while I’m still young,” Butler implores. “I wanna hold her hand/ And show her some beauty/ Before this damage is done.” This is a long way from than the snow-covered neighborhoods of Funeral.

While many compare the Arcade Fire to Bowie and Springsteen, references to other musicians pepper The Suburbs. “Businessmen they drink my blood/ Like the kids in art school said they would,” Butler intones, invoking Dylan, at the beginning of “Ready to Start,” a tense song of tightly strummed guitar and ethereal synths that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Depeche Mode record.

Pre-millennial tension has changed into post-millennial on next two tracks “Modern Man” and “Rococo.” If the mirror was black on Neon Bible, it is reflecting again on The Suburbs, as many songs go hand in hand, echoing themes back and forth. Butler’s “Modern Man” moans that “something don’t feel right” before dissolving into the scenester- baiting “Rococo.” “Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids,” Butler invites on the sweeping track. “They will eat right out of your hand/ Using great big words that they don’t understand.” If any band has been propped up and then deserted by indie rock’s elite, it’s the Arcade Fire. “They build it up/ Just to burn it back down/ The wind is blowing all the ashes around/ Oh my dear God what is that horrible song they’re singing?” Butler asks. Beats me, but it’s probably not something by M.I.A. any longer.

The Suburbs
is a robust affair, sporting more than 60 minutes of music. One surprise is the lack of Régine Chassagne’s vocals this time around. Despite appearing towards the end with the rousing “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” Chassagne is mostly silent, appearing in unison with Butler on “Empty Room,” a rousing song decked out with Owen Pallett’s string arrangements and the touching “Half Light I.”

Another of The Suburbs hidden charms is how much is brewing under the surface. While both Funeral and Neon Bible lived on the exterior, instantly hooking you in, The Suburbs may take a few listens before nestling its way to your heartstrings and melody center. Sure, songs like “City With No Children” is a standard rocker and “Suburban War” returns to full, theatrical arrangements of prior albums, but most of the record is filled something different.

If there is one complaint, The Suburbs may run a little long. “Month of May” is a throwaway rocker and “Wasted Hours,” although good, brings nothing new to the table but when Butler channels Bowie once again on “Deep Blue,” beginning a dense and emotional four song arc before closing out with “The Suburbs (Continued)” which reflects the melody of the opening track. Perhaps the most pungent combination comes at the end. Butler’s elegiac and plaintive melody of “Sprawl (Flatland)” explodes into the shimmering “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” evoking both the wistful swagger of Blondie and acerbic soundscapes of New Order. Once again evoking the lonely sadness of a suburban teenager, Chassagne sings of riding bikes and kissing in darkened parks.

If there is one thing that separates the Arcade Fire from their contemporaries, it’s their ability to expose a human’s beating heart and hold it up undaunted. In a musical landscape filled with wry witticisms that hide pain and fear, cheers to the Arcade Fire for once again walking unafraid and filling our speakers with the parabolic sound of a heartbeat.

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