Around the time of Arcade Fire's second album Neon Bible it felt as though, if they got any more ponderous and pompous, their third would need to be announced by plumes of smoke from Vatican chimneys and carried into shops by Black Rod on a velvet cushion.
All of which makes The Suburbs even more of a refreshing surprise. Somehow, the Montreal septet have shrugged off the weight of their own self-importance and discovered a new sense of purpose. The Suburbs is a concept album, but one which is free from the deadening pretentiousness that phrase usually entails, and in this respect, it doesn't hurt that the sound twinkles in a crystalline manner reminiscent at times of 1980s bands such as Simple Minds, and at other times like a previous generation's idea of lushness (Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac).
The life of the English suburbs has been well represented in art, from the poetry of Betjeman to the music of Suede. The US equivalent has been documented in songs by Springsteen and on screen by American Beauty. Here's the Canadian version.
The Suburbs' title track, a gentle country-rock reel at the pace of a horse-drawn wagon rolling through a market town, finds Win Butler in nostalgic, wistful mode. It's a mood, and a theme, that – aside from the anomalous being-in-a-band narrative "Month of May" – never ebbs away.
A feeling of loss permeates every cadence, as well as a doomed hope that what is lost can be recaptured. Most poignant of all is "Sprawl One (Flatland)", in which Butler embarks on a failed mission to find his old playgrounds, and finds himself caught in a reverie about a time when "Cops shine their lights on the reflectors of our bikes and say, 'You kids know what time it is?'" At which point something extraordinary happens. Out of the blue, they launch into "Sprawl Two (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", a glistening piece of disco-pop with a helium vocal from Régine Chassagne, heading inevitably to a hipster-filled electro-indie dancefloor near you. It's one of the most wonderful things you'll hear all year, and threatens to outshine and overshadow not only this already fine album, but Arcade Fire's entire oeuvre.
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