Suburbia. To the people who grew up there and fled, it may represent the horror of tepid domesticity or the lush lawns of nostalgia – or both. Some people leave and return to reclaim the territory for their own, at the risk of recreating the conditions that inspired flight in the first place. On Arcade Fire’s highly anticipated third album, songwriter Win Butler – who grew up in an idyllic small town in California – depicts the suburbs as a sweet utopia in danger of crumbling before our eyes, imbued with an innocence that is worth preserving. While this earnestness is one of Arcade Fire’s distinguishing features, the anxiety of not being up to the task of that preservation gives the lyrics and music their edge.
Co-produced by the band and Markus Dravs, The Suburbs offers plenty of the dense and stately keyboard-heavy pop that fans of the band have come to expect, with some much-appreciated frothier moments, but a melancholy theme of reluctant adulthood, or resistance to change, runs through even the more lightweight numbers.
The album takes a little while to get off the ground, opening with the mild-mannered, mid-tempo title tune (the first of two pre-release singles). The amiable, country-flavored song has an ingratiating hook that lulls you into a Sunday drive stupor, although the droning backing vocals on the final choruses suggest a cloud of locusts raining down on one’s pleasant back road excursion, and the song ends on a clanging, insistent chord that hangs in the air like regret. (The tone is echoed later on in “Wasted Hours,” another high lonesome meander into Neil Young territory, with lyrics that read like an inverse postcard greeting: “Wishing you were anywhere but here.” The song breaks down into spare, nearly a capella vocals that foreground the frosty isolation of the lyrics.)
Things pick up from there. “Ready To Start” – which might have made more sense as the album opener – gets things moving with a crisp Motown beat and an impassioned chorus declaring, with typical Arcadian sincerity, “Now I’m ready to start!” This segues into the first truly great track on the album, “Modern Man,” which sets lovely falsetto vocals against hiccup-y chord changes; the song recalls early-MTV era Bowie at his simplest and most direct.
The grand “Rococo” and pounding “Empty Room” are nice enough New Wave exercises that reflect Queen and Roxy Music influences, respectively, but they are merely the gateway to one of the highlights of the album, “City With No Children,” a sexy, T-Rex-y rocker with a glorious chorus and gorgeous glam riff that diverges from the usual Arcade Fire template.
The mini song-cycle “Half Light” starts out as a dull synth ballad and bursts into a strobe-lit dance anthem with a poignant minor-key melody. This joins “Month of May” – a super-upbeat but somewhat monotonous number about the cataclysmic effects of springtime – and “Sprawl II” as the album’s fun but largely unmemorable disco moments.
But there are other triumphs further in. “Suburban War” continues the album’s main theme. Delicate, heavily-chorused guitar arpeggios introduce a blearily swaying, shifting melody that ambles along like cattle in a field – or cattle and cane, for that matter, given Butler’s vocal resemblance to the Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan. (That shifty tempo trick is used again to good effect on the majestic “We Used to Wait.”) The most emotionally evocative song here starts out subtly, and then about three quarters of the way in, explodes into pure rock melodrama.
“Sprawl I (Flatland)” provides another moment of disquieting beauty. The song evolves from atmospheric slow-core to a genuinely affecting lounge ballad. A lovely bass line undergirds Butler’s relatively unhinged singing – the most emotionally expressive vocal performance on the album.
The Suburbs ends on a dark, dystopian note with a little 90-second deconstruction of the title track, leaving you to wonder if the “screaming” alluded to earlier might not always be the joyful kind. That kind of ambiguity is what makes Arcade Fire’s deceptively simple music all the more intriguing.