Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Sam Lee 09/08/2010

Rating: 5/5

It's gotta be said - very few bands have consistently received as much critical acclaim throughout their career as Montreal's Arcade Fire. It's been three years since their last release (2007's 'Neon Bible'), so, as you'd expect, the build-up to the release of 'The Suburbs', their third studio album, has seen more hype and anticipation than just about anything else this year. But, with rumours claiming that we were going to be witnessing a brand new, stripped-down Arcade Fire, the big question was always going to be: is the new Arcade Fire as good as the Arcade Fire that we fell in love with all those years ago?

Well, in a word - yes. But the jaunty-yet-slightly-pedestrian piano-led opening track 'The Suburbs' doesn't exactly start the album with a bang. Fortunately, though, to paraphrase 90's one-shit wonders D:Ream, things only get better from here. 'Ready To Start' and the irresistible 'Modern Man' both prove that Arcade Fire mk. III is every bit as good as the earlier models, and although both tracks show brief glimpses of 'Funeral'-esque majesty, it's a simpler, more modest sort of beauty. With its frantic strings and gorgeous Regine Chassagne / Win Butler harmonies, 'Empty Room' draws the most comparisons to pre-'The Suburbs' Arcade Fire, and is sheer exhilaration from beginning to end.

Built around a riff that sounds like a less angry Clash, 'City With No Children' takes things back to basics, while 'Half Light I' slows everything down with its orchestral arrangement and ethereal backing vocals, which fit perfectly with the lyrics of "You say you hear human voices / But they're only echoes." A touch of 80's chic is brought to the record with< 'Half Light II (No Celebration)', during which Win Butler whoops, bringing back fond recollections of his vocal style on 'Funeral'. Ahh, happy memories... Ahh, Win...

'Suburban War' is the calm before the storm, a gentle track nestled right in there just before the thunderous 'Month Of May', which is, by Arcade Fire's standards, a balls-out punk-rock belter. With simplistic lyrics ("Gonna make a record in the month of May / In the month of May / In the month of May") and straight-forward arrangements, it's Arcade Fire at their most stripped-back and visceral - ever. 'Wasted Hours' and 'Deep Blue' give the listener a chance to draw breath after the onslaught, while the asymmetrical time signature of 'We Used To Wait' only semi-disguises the fact that it's one of the more commercial tracks on the album with it's catchy rhythms and anthemic singalong chorus.

Finally, two unexpected highlights of the album. First up is 'Sprawl I (Flatland)'. Heart-rending yet menacing, and with the air of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, it's undeniably the most moving song on the album. 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' is a completely different beast, however. With an infectious and ever-so-slightly cheesy disco beat and 'Heart Of Glass'-esque falsetto vocals, it probably shouldn't be any good whatsoever - yet, somehow, it's one of the most memorable tracks.

On paper, this album shouldn't really be anything that special. The entire record is definitely more 'refined' than the Arcade Fire of old; gone are the overblown strings arrangements and the huge, goosebump-inducing anthems. But, despite this, one thing remains that makes it a very, very special album indeed - the mere fact that it's Arcade Fire. It seems that absolutely everything that Win and Co. lay their hands on turns into pure musical gold. It doesn't matter if it sounds how Arcade Fire 'should' sound. The simple fact remains: 'The Suburbs' is a flawless album. I'm sure that plenty of people will disagree, but I reckon it's safe to say that it's easily as good as their previous two albums - if not better. Would it be as good if it was anyone other than Arcade Fire? Probably not. But that's half of the beauty of it, isn't it?