Review Summary: 2009, 2010. Wanna make a record how I felt then.
On Arcade Fire’s dazzling debut, Funeral, the band lamented the death of close friends and family while managing to remain optimistic about life in general. This deft balance was played with great slight of hand. The music wasn’t bad either, as the band managed to blend classical flourishes with an indie-rock aesthetic into an irresistible concoction. Expectations were high for their 2007 follow-up, Neon Bible. Instead of making Funeral II, they went in a different direction, recording in an old church, and making a political, apocalyptic record with a much more symphonic and bombastic sound. While not all who loved Funeral were as smitten with Neon Bible, it was generally well received as an ambitious follow-up. Stakes were high for their third record. Would they fizzle out, sell out, cop out, or actually release another quality album? The answer is an overwhelming yes to the latter.
The disc runs long (about an hour), but this is forgiven because the band has given us a true concept album in the days of iTunes singles and ring tones, replete with seamless transitions between tracks, multi-song suites and song-within-song suites. The album’s concept is centered on the suburbs, the great American wasteland, if you will. While this might seem fairly commonplace at surface value, the band attacks this concept in many different ways. Some songs deal with the onslaught of technology in our modern world, while others express the loss of innocence and childhood in exchange for the realities of adult life. Others address the battle between conforming to the American dream and doing what one truly wants to do, while the capitalistic sprawl of strip malls and cookie-cutter houses also is given notice. This makes for a fascinating, multi-faceted listen with great emotional resonance.
The sound of The Suburbs represents everything great about Arcade Fire but tightened up, and polished for maximum appeal. Not maximum appeal in the sense of mindlessly pandering to the mainstream, but rather, streamlined to the point where they sound more like a true rock band, and less like a bunch of rock musicians playing with a miniature orchestra. While that rag-tag orchestral aspect of their sound is what drew many to them in the first place, it would have been nothing had the songs been bunk. However, on the Suburbs, the songs are as sharp as ever, surpassing many cuts on Neon Bible, and even Funeral. The music itself is sprinkled with an intense sense of nostalgia, not only for times passed in one’s life, but for music of past eras as well. The band takes cues from 20th century honky-tonk piano (The Suburbs), classic punk (Month of May), disco/new wave (Sprawl II, Half-Light II), Neil Young (Wasted Hours), and even Bruce Springsteen (City With No Children), while the excellent Modern Man evokes what Tom Petty might have sounded like had he come out in 2010. The amazing thing about this is it all still manages to sound like Arcade Fire.
There are more synthesizers present on this than any of their prior work, but they blend in seamlessly with the band’s large sound. The string flourishes are still there, but take more of an atmospheric role this time out. While one may not notice them as immediately as on past records, the songs would be lacking without them. The album has an incredible atmosphere to it that is just bubbling below the surface. Multiple listens reveal new nuances to the tracks every time. This is truly a record that one can hear for the fiftieth time, and still manage to pick out sounds they hadn’t heard up to that point. The bass lines, while not technically amazing, are an integral part of many of the songs, lending a certain amount of groove to the band that suits them quite nicely (Ready To Start). Win Butler and Regine Chassagne both provide excellent vocal performances. Butler’s voice sounds more refined than ever, (remember the guy who could barely sing on Funeral?) while still managing to possess a wide range of emotion from anger, to reflection. He sounds beaten down by the modern world on some songs, while downright triumphant on others. Chassagne's background vocals are an integral part of many of the cuts, and she has excellent lead turns on Empty Room and Sprawl II, two of the best songs on the record. The guitars are much more prominent here than on Neon Bible, and even more so than some tracks from Funeral. On Rococo, what starts off as an acoustic, chamber-pop number explodes into arguably the heaviest song the band has ever recorded, as feedback squeals in the background before giving way to a heavily distorted guitar solo. The aforementioned Month of May rages harder than many actual punk bands as Win Butler’s rhythm guitar absolutely screams over densely layered vocals. At this point, one may wonder if this is really the same group that released Neon Bible. However, the band pulls all these seemingly disparate styles off and manages to make them into a cohesive album. They avoid the third-album letdown by taking elements of their past work, blending them nicely, and managing to break new ground as well.
While this album does run long, it does so in the spirit of the concept album. The Wall was long and had many skits and vignettes, but the concept and the music was riveting enough to warrant multiple listens, and The Suburbs is no different, except with considerably less filler. The album manages to be very of this era, yet the relatable subject matter and the vast array of influences within the music manage to transcend the time in which it was released. Like The Wall’s and OK Computer’s before it, this is a classic that is destined to be rediscovered by generations to come.