In a recent article I read in the New York Times, frontman Win Butler said "I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band." In an era of single-song downloads, album bands are rare to come by. The Arcade Fire, once declared as indie darlings after the release of their fantastic 2004 debut Funeral, have made a triumphant return to the music scene, with their third album and their best, The Suburbs. It's a lengthy but wonderfully conceived concept record that has the majority of the music press salivating over the past few weeks. Unlike Funeral and 2007's Neon Bible where there were more standout tracks (Wake Up, Rebellion, Power Out, Keep The Car Running, Intervention, No Cars Go), The Suburbs is meant to be listened to in its entirety from start to end.
This time round, the band tackles personal issues -- growing up, starting a family, modernity, alienation, loss of innocence, finding your purpose in life. And they do so by painting vast sonic landscapes, incorporating an assortment of musical styles. The opening title song starts out mellow, fueled by a playful country-tinged piano; it's already a rapid changing world and it has Win declaring "I want a daughter while I'm still young, I wanna hold her hand, And show her some beauty, Before this damage is done". It builds to a soft dramatic finish, then goes seamlessly into Ready To Start. Personally I like all the song transitions, and it's little moments like these that make the album work.
Another one 'moment' is in Modern Man, where just a sudden slight change in time signature in the verses can totally change the mood. It's a sad song -- the modern man here is just like the man from Jackson Browne's The Pretender. On a lighter subject, Rococo pokes fun at all those modern kids, so-called hipsters who use "great big words that they don't understand". The line "They build it up just to burn it back down" could also easily be directed at fans of indie music, whatever that means. But the sadness continues with Empty Room, with some frenzied violin playing at the start, with Win and his wife Régine Chassagne harmonizing together about loneliness -- "Said your name, in an empty room. Something I would never do".
The prominent guitars on songs like City With No Children, Suburban War and the (post-punk) Month Of May give them a more rock & roll feel. But the music reaches an incredible climax towards the end in Sprawl II, my favorite song on the album. And may I dare say it's possibly the best song they've done so far. Régine contributes some haunting vocals, backed by a catchy synth-pop disco beat, singing about how "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains". There's a sort of intimate grandeur to these songs, something that wasn't really present in their previous two records. Trust me, The Suburbs get better and better with each listen. Like many records from the 60's and 70's, this too will stand the test of time.