On the Record: “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire

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September 3, 2010

12:58 AM

After the release of Arcade Fire’s sophomore album “Neon Bible,” many fans were concerned. While the album was far from being a sophomore slump, frontman Win Butler seemed to have suffered from a textbook case of “biting off more than you can chew.” By attempting to juggle sullen criticisms of politics, religion and the media simultaneously, the raw power found in the group’s brilliant debut, “Funeral,” was lost in the ensuing scuffle. Arcade Fire’s future was unclear: Would they continue down that dark, overly ambitious path, or return to their debut’s blend of nostalgic lyrics and cathartic bombast? The answer is clear: With their third album, “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire has taken both one step backward and one step forward. This LP is both a return-to-roots epic and a clear indication that the band has grown. The band has provided us with its most mature album yet, restrained and achingly beautiful.

Taking cues from critics and fans who appreciated the personal history found on “Funeral,” which was conceived after the bandmates experienced deaths within their respective families, Butler decided to write about his childhood in the suburbs and how it related to American society as a whole. While the lyrics aren’t particularly inspired, they’re immeasurably aided by Butler’s earnest, quavering voice. The music itself is what’s truly impressive. Gone are the moments when the band participates in primal screaming, or when the orchestra erupts into song for a third time. Musical climaxes are rare and slightly subdued in “The Suburbs.” Instead, the album works as a cohesive whole, allowing each song to explore its own musical style while still contributing to the overall theme. The songs are sprawling: the album explores everything from blistering punk to a close relative of disco.

While lacking the immediacy of Arcade Fire’s previous two albums, “The Suburbs” is a masterpiece in its own careful way. It requires a few spins to fully sink in, but those who are patient will be rewarded. At the very least, the album teaches us that the coolest accessory isn’t vintage glasses or an ironic T-shirt — it’s the heart Butler wears prominently on his sleeve

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