The Suburbs (Merge)
The 1980s dominates the emotional landscape of Arcade Fire’s third album. There’s less Talking Heads-inspired angst this time around, but there’s plenty of Springsteen and Echo and the Bunnymen, and in one case (“Modern Man”) they get considerable mileage from a progged-up Rick Springfield vamp. A few moments—particularly standout “The Sprawl (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”—capture the feel of top-of-their-game New Order. But intentionally or not, The Suburbs seems less about the wane of youth and more about its pursuant bitterness—a sour turn after the catharsis of the 2004 debut Funeral—and a similar resignation keeps the sound rooted in the present, where other bands are doing most of the same things almost as well. (It’s all well and good that acts like the Killers take big cues from Arcade Fire, but a few under-earned and over-sold crescendos here come uncomfortably close to reversing the formula.) The Suburbs is some of the best indie rock of the past few years, but it’s too familiar to be an event.
Frontman Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne pick the sprawl of adult life as a lyrical conceit, and sprawl is a problem for their album as well. Fans will appreciate that at 16 tracks The Suburbs is significantly longer than its predecessors, and though there’s something to recommend in every track it may have been wiser to set any random handful aside, shortening the album’s less distinguished middle section and giving the songs more room to breathe. (It speaks highly of the band that severing even one or two of the stronger songs would be unlikely to hurt the surrounding album.) As it is, there’s a little too much to take in at once, and given The Suburbs’ strengths and weaknesses—and more pointedly its themes—it’s not hard to see something damaged but somehow purer underneath it all.