Album Review: Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"

July 28, 2010

Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge) Rating: 3.5/4

Bandleader Win Butler is a man of contradictions, which he fully owns up to. “Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man,” he sings on the third track from Arcade Fire’s third album, “The Suburbs.” With the much-acclaimed full-length debut “Funeral” (2004), a meditation on death and loss, and the follow-up “Neon Bible” (2007), a consideration of the hollowness of religion, his Montreal orchestral-pop collective has made some of the most personal, heartfelt, and unashamedly un-ironic music that the indie underground has produced since Neutral Milk Hotel, which just happened to record for the same label. At the same time, the rousing, anthemic nature of the group’s roiling grooves marked it as the one indie band of the last two decades that actually could make it to the arenas—or at least the main-stage headlining slots at Coachella or Lollapalooza.

Not that Arcade Fire necessarily wants to be the hipster Springsteen or U2, as some critics posit. “Businessmen they drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would,” Butler sings in another of my favorite lines, from “Ready to Start.” He’s not whining about this, mind you—one of his contradictions is that he’s simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the old-school notion of rock stardom—he’s just making an observation about the situation he finds himself in. It’s the same way he’s considering both the ugly clutter of what he calls “sprawl”—the seemingly unstoppable, virus-like spread of suburban strip-mall America—and the inescapable attraction he feels to it, having grown up with his brother William in the Woodlands, a master-planned community replete with a massive shopping mall, seven golf courses, and several of the biggest corporate campuses in the U.S., 28 miles north of downtown Houston.

In any event, Arcade Fire ratchets down the rah-rah on this album, taming those rolling rhythms to some degree and luxuriating more in the massive walls of sound built from a well-off high-school orchestra’s worth of instruments, with some cool analog synths thrown in this time for good measure. The melodies are as strong as any the band has delivered, they’re just… more relaxed, with more air in the arrangements, and more slyly insinuating than instantly infectious. Which fits the theme, and makes for a more consistent whole than the preceding discs.

Many critics are hearing that theme as a sort of rock ’n’ roll take on those recent, melancholy, lifeless-heart-of-suburbia films “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” but I think they’re missing the point: Butler and his wife Régine Chassagne at heart aren’t really hipsters, but hippies; witness the communal setup of their band. Sure, they’ve put a modern spin on the lifestyle—fleeing to the Montreal arts community rather than the (real) woodlands—but that doesn’t mean they don’t bemoan the destruction of the wilderness as much as Sting or Don Henley. “I want a daughter while I’m still young,” Butler sings on the title track. “I wanna hold her hand/And show her some beauty/Before this damage is done.”

Who among us can argue with that message—especially when it’s couched in such exquisitely seductive musical settings? “The Suburbs” is my least favorite Arcade Fire album—I’m a rhythm man, and I miss those big, percussive assaults—but that’s a minor knock, because it’s also one of the most extraordinary albums I’ve heard in the new millennium, and I haven’t been able to stop listening long enough to visit Woodfield. Or Oakbrook. Or Northfield…