Arcade Fire: The Suburbs | CD review

By reining in their excesses and lightening up a bit, Arcade Fire regain a lot of charm, says Alexis Petridis

In 1998, Q magazine invited readers to vote for the 100 Best Albums of All Time. Twelve years on, the results offer an unwittingly hilarious glimpse into a lost world, where Ocean Colour Scene's Moseley Shoals was deemed superior to Exile on Main Street and Blood on the Tracks, Supergrass's In It for the Money comfortably outstrips The Velvet Underground Featuring Nico, and Otis Blue and What's Going On cannot hope to match the solid-gold soul classic that was All Change by Cast. If nothing else, it highlights the way some albums' reputations decline dramatically after a period of reflection. Written by the winners, rock history is packed with albums that gradually developed a patina of greatness with time – not least The Velvet Underground Featuring Nico, which was ignored on release, but would one day be deemed almost as good as Supergrass' second album. But it leaves out the once-lauded albums whose importance seems to wane.

Which brings us to Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, the critical standing of which seems to have slumped since it was released to near-unanimous praise three years ago. One reviewer recently described it as "defining the sophmore slump". That's a funny thing to say about a record that reached No 2 in the US chart and catapulted its authors to mainstream success, but it's nevertheless indicative of the way initial awe at its sonic grandeur gradually changed into disappointment. In their passage from the quirky alt-rock of debut Funeral to the Neon Bible's stern lectures on the environment and terrorism, Arcade Fire worryingly appeared to have covered the same ground that separated Simple Minds' I Travel from Belfast Child in the space of one album.

Their frontman Win Butler famously makes great show of never reading anything written about the band, but The Suburbs suggests Arcade Fire may have come to the same conclusion independently. The lyrics stop shaking their fist at the evils of modern life and revert back to childhood, a topic that informed the most celebrated songs from Funeral. There are a lot of rather disdainful references to "the kids" – "the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes, but they bow down to him anyway", "the modern kids … will eat right out of your hand, using great big words they don't understand" – which on first listen sound like that least lovable of sounds: the dissatisfied rock star sneering at his audience. But Arcade Fire don't really deal in sour misanthropy: their live performances' evangelical fervour seems designed to disarm onlookers of their cynicism. Instead, the kids in question appear to be Butler and his multi-instrumentalist brother, Will, songs simultaneously chiding and fondly celebrating youthful foibles, of a piece with an ambiguous album that can't decide whether their childhood home was a carefree utopia that can never be located again – The Sprawl I (Flatland) mournfully recounts a doomed attempt to do so – or a place of stifling conformity where "they heard me singing and told me to stop".

Meanwhile, the opening title track steps back from the hysterical sonic overload of its predecessor into infinitely more subtle territory: a sing-song melody, over Neil Young-ish piano and lazily strummed acoustic guitar. Its intimations of doom come not from end-of-days histrionics, but dark shadings of strings and lead guitar at odds with the otherwise homely atmosphere. Butler croons as if close to the listener's ear, something that, had he attempted it in the past, might well have resulted in permanent damage to the listener's hearing.

It sets the album's tone, which reins in the excesses of the past, even when the songs veer towards something similar. Empty Room has the propulsion of Neon Bible's No Cars Go, but it's leavened by Régine Chassagne's gorgeous, airy vocal. For the most part, The Suburbs' pleasures are subtle ones – the sudden lurch in rhythm that disrupts the drivetime rock dynamics of Modern Man, the delicate drift of Half Light I. The most surprising among them must be the discovery of Arcade Fire's sense of humour, hitherto unnoticed, possibly because it was hitherto nonexistent. If the album's wearying length (at over an hour, it could happily lose three or four tracks, starting with the leaden Half Light II) and song titles packed with brackets and roman numerals still suggest a band inclined to take itself too seriously, there's something charming about the way an album about growing up in the suburban 80s gradually starts to resemble a chart rundown from 1983: the taut, post-new wave rock track (We Used to Wait), the mournful social-realist ballad (The Sprawl I), the glittering synth-pop masterpiece (the glorious Sprawl II). You wait expectantly for them go the whole nostalgic hog and hit you with a novelty dance track along the lines of Agadoo, but, alas they don't: instead it ends with a reprise of the title track, and a satisfying sense of having accomplished what they set out to achieve.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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