With their third studio album, Arcade Fire have toned down the pomp to produce a refined yet powerful return to form that has moments of brilliance.
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
There are plenty of good reasons to be suspicious about Arcade Fire. With their 2004 debut, Funeral, the North American rockers provided one of the best-loved albums of the past decade - but the ensuing years saw them display a level of pomp and humourlessness that one might expect to witness on a North Korean public holiday.
Their 2007 release, Neon Bible, was a huge commercial and critical success, which helped the group find a mainstream audience. But with its focus on the environment, terrorism and celebrity culture, it felt every bit as preachy as the televangelists that the album's title was supposed to mock. Their live shows saw the frontman Win Butler resembling a wild-eyed cult leader, barking orders at his band and the audience alike. Then there were the song titles, laden with brackets and Roman numerals, resembling instructions for building flat-pack furniture. It just all seemed a little bit silly.
Thankfully, The Suburbs sees the Texan-Haitian-French Canadian septet crafting a sound that is less ostentatious than before and telling a story that is far more personal. It is an album about living in the suburban sprawl during the 1980s - a love letter to a simpler time. Gone are the giant string arrangements and brass sections (one song on Neon Bible even featured a church organ) - instead, many of the tunes fit around a simple acoustic guitar part. No release that pays homage to the 1980s would be complete without a few synthesisers and this album obliges, albeit with tremendous subtlety.
It kicks off with the upbeat piano-driven title track, The Suburbs, a nostalgic jaunt in which Butler recalls the rivalries of old: "You always seemed so sure/That one day we would be fighting/In a suburban war/Your part of town against mine." Empty Room starts with a violin flurry that could accompany a 1950s washing-up powder advertisement, before stomping drums and guitars remind us of the Arcade Fire of old.
The record lacks the kind of knock-out tracks that made Funeral so essential, such as Neighborhood #3 (Power Out), Wake Up or Rebellion (Lies) - but The Suburbs certainly isn't short on great tunes. The slow-paced City With No Children has the most glorious, meandering bassline in recent memory and Butler commands the track with the delicate power of Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. A slowly echoing synth provides the album with its most emotionally resonant moment on the the gorgeously understated Half Light II (No Celebration). Tucked away towards the end, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) features the ghostly vocals of Régine Chassagne (the group's multi-instrumentalist and Butler's wife) accompanied by further excellent electronic elements and one of the album's catchiest choruses - reminiscent of the British synth-pop group OMD.
While the band have clearly refined their sound by honing in their excesses, the record itself is rather long-winded. At 16 tracks and more than an hour in length, the group's ode to perpetual childhood actually feels like it might go on forever. What's more, even when discussing the whimsy and innocence of youth, the agitated Butler shows little sign of lightening up. Arcade Fire have produced an album that departs from its predecessors both musically and emotionally, but without losing any of the group's distinctiveness. While newcomers may feel bogged down by the sheer amount of music here, there are enough moments of brilliance for even the biggest sceptic to see the group in a different light.