It seems semi-impossible for Montreal’s held-in-holy-regard Arcade Fire to top their previous two albums, but with The Suburbs they seem to have at least met their own standard. Still epic in that sense-of-urgency kind of way only Arcade Fire can conjure up, The Suburbs mirrors its namesake—both youthful and optimistic, yet laden with frustration and ennui.
One of the most immediate sonic changes that continues over the album’s 16 tracks is the reeled-in sound that still manages vulnerability; it’s less baroque and rock-operatic than Neon Bible, which means it’s at least a little less depressing as well. This makes sense when you realize The Suburbs is meant to invoke childhood. Frontman Win Butler wrote the album based on pre-Montreal experiences growing up in a manufactured Houston, TX-area suburb. But, for those who know too well, for all its sanitized freedoms, the ‘burbs also bely tepid boredom and unrealized dreams.
It’s this precarious mix that fuels The Suburbs subdued explosiveness which, at times, can feel a little sprawling. The jangly “Ready To Start” sets the record off to a typically jaunty start with racing drums over pining, twinkly keys, but then phases into the driving, Neil Young-esque sensibility of “Modern Man”—an ebb-and-flow anthem of unease underscored by punctuated percussion and grating guitars. “Rococo” is full-out Arcade Fire, interlacing themes of 2010-ian dystopia in opening lyrics “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words they don’t understand,” with haunting chants, huge cymbal crashes and alienating static feedback. The requisite festival-appropriate pounder comes courtesy of 80s-speed rock nostalgic “Month of May,” and it’s hard to stop listening to the album’s second two-parter “Sprawl I (Flatland)”—a mournful, lament of estrangement—and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which details Big City lust with a New Wave glow.
Yeah, it’s long. But with such a precise, purposeful performance, Arcade Fire isn’t packing throwaways onto The Suburbs—there’s some tiny discovery to be untucked from the layers of every song. And despite it’s title, the record is less about praising city life than appreciating the unique joys and challenges of growing up suburban. Thematically and sonically, this album could cement Arcade Fire as a new generation’s Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins—minus the overt malaise.