On Arcade Fire’s second album, 2007’s Neon Bible, the band got serious, with heavy, ponderous songs about the environment, the media and religion. It’s therefore something of a relief when the opening bars of the first and title track on this new album. The Suburbs, reveal a lighter touch, with a country shuffle that’s only slightly uneasy. The song’s winsome beat announces a new restraint that permeates much of the album. The band, which rose from the ranks of the achingly hip to stadium heroes in two albums flat, is not known for restraint. Rather, big, blood’n’thunder numbers belted out like lives depend on it by a veritable village is the traditional stock in trade. Think Ian Paisley and the E Street Band and you’re somewhere close..
On The Suburbs, the band have reigned things in considerably, and the result is a mature record that represents a creative step forward that’s bigger than its gestures might suggest. Indeed, the most rewarding moments on this record come when the production is at its most low key. Modern Man is particularly successful, with a clipped, precise delivery that isn’t unlike a lost gem from Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. On Half-Light II (No Celebration) the band reveal a surprising dexterity with synths, pushed further on the superb disco-swirl of Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains), coming soon to an indie dance floor near you.
One of the few tracks that harks back to the ornate and expansive arrangements of their earlier work is the suitably titled Rococo, a song that, somewhat tellingly, seems frustrated with the heady funk of hipster chic that has always surrounded the band. “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids,” Win Butler sings, “They will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand.” If this seems rather ungrateful to their core fans, it’s saved by the sense that the band are as much making fun of themselves as anyone else, with a build up to the chorus that includes the line “Oh my god, what is that horrible song they’re singing… Rococo!”
Lyrically, the album continues Butler’s obsession with ‘the kids’ (drinking game, anyone?), but develops the raucous abandon of previous albums into a set of songs that is altogether more grown-up. Where once Butler was content to paint big, expressionistic strokes, he now reaches for a subtler, more muted palette. On the title track, this idea is summed up with the simple observation “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling”; a lyric that both opens and closes this album. The big concept of The Suburbs – and it is a concept album, mind - seems to be that, although revisiting childhood haunts can be painful, treacherous even, there’s value amongst all the bittersweet nostalgia; the suburban nightmare is not nearly so frightful as it may have appeared back in the day.
To be fair, the album is rather longer than it needs to be, with a couple of tracks in the middle that seem unnecessary and, at times, like on the pseudo-punk of Month of May, out of keeping with the otherwise meticulous construction. And despite the success of the new, lean sound, it’s possible, at times. to miss the amped-up evangelism of Funeral and Neon Bible. Nonetheless, The Suburbs is the sound of a band embracing their status as major artists, with a record that is thoughtful and ambitious, while managing to remain accessible and warm.