Released: Monday 2 August 2010
Arcade Fire's last record, 2007's Neon Bible, was a ferocious critique of American extremism, imperialism and vulgarity that blatantly nodded toward Springsteen and Dylan: two of the songs, 'Keep the Car Running' and 'Antichrist Television Blues', were pitch-perfect Boss pastiches, while the album's title was an unmistakable reference to the sacred/profane "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" of Dylan's 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)'.
Taking the classic American songwriting style and turning it against its home country might have accounted for the cool reception Neon Bible received in the States, and so it might be significant that, since then, Arcade Fire have followed the Bruce, Bob and (from another band they've been compared to) Bono route of political and humanitarian activism. They played gigs for Barack Obama in 2008, while lobbying for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and recently pledged a cool $1m to the fund for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Clearly these acts are heartfelt attempts to, as the clichÃ© goes, make a difference; also, however, they could be implicit acknowledgements that the 'everything is going to hell' ethos of Neon Bible, as well as the 'everything is so sad' ethos of the band's brilliant debut, Funeral, are not enough. If you want to change the world - and Arcade Fire, a band of singular ambition, clearly do - you have to do more than sigh or rant.
The difference in tone on The Suburbs is unmistakeable - the desperate melancholy of Funeral and the apocalyptic fury of Neon Bible is replaced here by a sense of maturity that coexists with a vague, often unacknowledged sense of unease. "Sometimes I can't believe it/ I'm moving past the feeling," Butler sings on the opener and title track, signalling that the exquisite sentiment of Funeral's opening 'Neighborhood' quartet has been replaced by a more considered perspective. The rest of the song - released, stealthily, as a single in May - is quite peculiar, beginning with an uncharacteristic bounce before turning into an unsettling portrait of suburban war, as "All the houses built in the 70s finally fall," and Butler's world is ripped up so he can start again. Musically, it's a rich, complex brew, and it ends, incongruously, with a glorious guitar figure juxtaposed with Butler wailing, "In our dreams we're still screamingâ€¦" It's an oddly violent song about the fear of change, the fear of ageing, and the worry that it will mean that everything comfortable is going to be destroyed.
So The Suburbs is preoccupied with change and ageing, but on the rest of the album Butler faces the inevitable with a more steady gaze. 'Half Light II (No Celebrations)' is a wistful tale of someone moving from San Francisco "back east" - the opposite to the classic American fortune-seeking journey - to find that his "city's changed so much since I was a little child/ Pray that I won't live to see the death of everything that's wildâ€¦One day they'll see it's long gone." 'Suburban War' sees Butler revisiting his hometown and driving around at night, noting that "This town's so strange/ They built it to change." The tone is totally dispassionate: change is not something that can be stopped, merely something that happens. Gloomy as that sounds, on the record, it isn't. Rather, most of the songs are suffused with warmth and, above all, satisfaction; sure, at times the album a resigned quality, but ultimately Butler is no longer the depressed or angry young man of Funeral or Neon Bible, and he seems quite happy about that.
But there's also a streak of cantankerousness here, as Butler plays the wizened oldster having a go at today's youth. On 'Month of May', "some things are pure and some things are right/ But the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight;" even when faced with moral absolutes, 'the kids' can't bring themselves to care". On the wonderful 'Rococo', meanwhile, Butler is going "Downtown [to] talk to the modern kids/ They will eat right out of your hand/ Using great big words that they don't understand;" later he complains that "they seem wild but they are so tame." These sneery bits have led a couple of reviewers to view the whole album as a rant against 'hipster culture' (as if Arcade Fire have no loftier lyrical ambition than to slag off hipsters); rather it feels like this anti-youngster sentiment is another expression of emotional maturity, as Butler is comparing his age and wisdom to the childish pretention and apathy of the kids. It's summed up more positively by Regine Chassagne in the penultimate, utterly gorgeous 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)': "Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clouds."
I could talk about the themes on this record all day, but that would be to ignore its most magnificent aspect: the music. Almost every track here sounds like a classic, from the glorious, expansive 'Half Light II' (which sounds like Eno-era - that is, good - U2) to the lovely, meandering 'Modern Man', with its brilliantly simple little guitar riffs. Then there's the breathless indie chamber-pop of 'Empty Room', which begins with a dizzying blizzard of strings; the jangly miserablism of 'Suburban War'; the Springsteen-esque 'City with No Children'; and the thrilling, ersatz punk of 'Month of May'.
Best of all is 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)', which combines earthy bass, airy synths (which sound at points, oddly, like The Knife) and Chassagne's delicate voice to spellbinding effect. Even if you don't care for one or two of the songs on here, this is such a sprawling (16 tracks, 63 minutes) and varied record that there is something here to suit almost any taste. But the songs never feel like pastiches - The Suburbs is a beautifully assembled, thoughtful and complete record with a soul, a heart and a brain. It's already been called Arcade Fire's Automatic For the People, and while the comparison makes sense, it's better than that album. It's a masterpiece.