What exactly is it about the third album? After the “difficulties” of the second and managing to keep everyone interested in you, possibly by making a shock change in direction or building up to a grander scale, when it comes to the third effort bands come home to roost, one way or another. It could be musically, lyrically or, in the case of Arcade Fire, taking the whole phrase literally and revisiting the many places where they grew up.
Thematically, it’s a concept album. Though really we should be using a small “c” on concept. In fact there are two distinct themes that run through the circulatory system of “The Suburbs”. The first, the arteries of the record, is the analysing of life in a band: “Month of May” in particular picks up on this, describing the inanimate crowds at a gig and waffling about forming a band in the eponymous month. The second theme, the veins of the project, is the idea of home and belonging. This is kicked off with the opening title track, where frontman Win Butler croons about running around the place, stealing his mother’s keys and generally being a bit of a ragamuffin (and I wouldn’t put it past them to use the word “ragamuffin” in any of their songs).
On first listen, it seems as though the band have regressed slightly to sound more like the slightly jerky, art-rock movements of their first album “Funeral” but this isn’t the case at all. In fact, you can hear that they’ve distilled the grandiose style of epic second helping “Neon Bible” into a looser, more accessible collection. It saunters along at its own pace (and at sixteen tracks long, it can afford to walk however it wants) but never feels plodding or repetitive. Still, this more relaxed style doesn’t mean that they’ve lost any playfulness or dark undertones.
On “City With No Children” Win ponders “I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts about it…” Essentially the band are having a sly pop at themselves at the same time as trying to be a bit reverential. It’s a contradiction in itself but this is where numerous spins of “The Suburbs” pays off: you notice something a little more interesting or humorous in each song. They are, if you like, the LCD Soundsystem of the indie-rock world.
You have to hand it to Arcade Fire though. On this album they could have very easily just made a second “Neon Bible” and leeched off the fact that it was a sound that seemed to work but instead they’ve tried new things, even using vintage synths to give an almost ABBA-like feel on “Half-Light II” and “Sprawl II (No Celebration)”. Who would’ve thought it?
At the end of the day though you could never listen to “The Suburbs” and mistake Arcade Fire for someone else. Even though they’ve tweaked, prodded and experimented with their sound they’re still very much themselves. I think we should be grateful for that.