Any kid who grew up in the suburbs can tell you what they’re all about: upper-middle-class homes, usually boring with a pale white fence; the day-to-day cycle of sleep, school, repeat; the simple pleasures of a country club and a drive-in movie. All the darkness and ennui associated with Arcade Fire resides there — the longing for escape, the holding out for something more once you finally leave. And even for those who grew up in a city, Win Butler’s earnest take on suburban entrapment, fleeting youth and the slow but steady Walmartization of the countryside tells all there is to know.
The band describes its new album, The Suburbs, as a mix between Depeche Mode and Neil Young, and it’s dead on: Taking cues evenhandedly from new-wave electronica and classic folk troubador-ism, Butler and company find a rare, agreeable middle ground between a synthesizer and an acoustic guitar. It’s something other acts could never pull off as tastefully and inventively. Equal parts epic and reflective, The Suburbs’s 16 tracks never falter or lose momentum, and by the time the title track gets its reprise at the album’s close, it feels like finishing a really satisfying book or film — loose ends tied, characters reunited and conflicts resolved.
As dark as this album gets, it never loses its sunny feel — its melodic ease and chiming guitars could compete with Best Coast’s sun-drenched debut. The band uses its production to full effect, but always with an expert ear to let melody and feeling reign. Like The National, Arcade Fire has a knack for catharsis and is able to create complete moods within its songs. Whether triumphant or terrifying, emotions dictate the entire album.
“The Suburbs” is a slow-burner driven by a piano and some dizzying strings, opening the album with a bounce but hinting at the darkness ahead. Segueing into the radio-ready stomp “Ready to Start,” it’s immediately clear that the band is back in full force, with dense textures, blacklit guitar lines and lucid synth textures.
“City With No Children” is a steady chime of ringing guitars and hand claps that recalls the better tracks of Funeral, recapturing the freedom of “Wake Up” and the possibility of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” with ease. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is just as revelatory but with even more New Wave flair, propelled by a four-on-the-floor backbeat and Régine Chassagne’s best Debbie Harry.
Even with its use of older tricks and aesthetics, Arcade Fire never sounds like a total throwback — it’s as 2010 as it is 1981, and probably more. The Suburbs is the sermon Neon Bible tried to be, only never as preachy, and it’s all the more affecting for it. No one can write songs about “the kids” that sound as all-encompassing and urgent as Win Butler and company — their directness hits home regardless of your age or where you grew up. Urban sprawl aside, if the suburbs sound anything like this, here’s your reason to get out of the city.