Arcade Fire took a different approach to recording their third album compared to their first two. While Funeral and Neon Bible were fairly contiguous works—particularly Neon Bible, which was conceived in a church that the band converted to a recording studio—The Suburbs was recorded in Montreal, Quebec (their church-to-studio), and New York City. This gives the album a sprawling sound that is not present on their previous works, and it shows just how far the band has come in the six years since Funeral.
The first thing I noticed about The Suburbs was its length. While Funeral and Neon Bible were not especially short records—10 and 11 songs, respectively, both around 47 minutes—they pale in comparison to the grand length of The Suburbs. With 16 tracks, clocking in at over an hour, it appears, before even listening, to be their most ambitious work yet.
In a way, this album feels a lot clearer than either of the group's previous albums. Those albums were ambitious, but in a way that made the album feel like a collection of great songs. The Suburbs, on the other hand, feels like a great album, one that had more planning before recording began. The songs flow in a way that makes them seem completely blended together. The first time I listened to the album, I actually could not be certain at one point if I had just listened to two or three songs. I don't mean that the songs sounded identical; just that each song transitions into the next, both musically and thematically. The group de-emphasizes individual anthems such as "Wake Up" and "No Cars Go," and instead focuses on how the songs interact with each other.
For the most part, this works out rather well. The first quarter of the album is paced very deliberately. It stresses the apathy that is present in the suburbs, and the unfortunate state of modern humanity. "By the times the first bombs fell/We were already bored," Win Butler laments on the opener. It may not be obvious, but Butler is clearly a little bit sick of his fans, as he sings on "Rococo," "Let's go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words that they don't understand." Butler clearly wants things to matter; this is one thing that made the first two albums great—when he has something to say, it drives the albums forward and gives them a sense of purpose. Butler, though, spends the first part of The Suburbs lamenting what happens when his point isn't getting across. When his audience is not driven out of apathy, when they are still trying to be more than they really are, he sees it as a reflection on the poor state of humanity. This cynicism pretty much drives the entire album.
Beginning with "Empty Room," Arcade Fire begins to vary the pace of the album, adopting a more introspective point of view. Along with "City With No Children," the two songs depict how empty the suburbs and its people really are. Nonetheless, both songs have instrumentals light enough to keep the songs from weighing down the entire album. This sets up the first two-part song, "Half Light," a song that moves from the theme of human stagnation to the theme of change. This theme continues into "Suburban War," and sets up the frenetic "Month of May."
The other two-part song, "Sprawl," condenses the concept of the album into two tracks, to great effect. The first part, Flatland, is dark and lonely. Win describes the isolation and abandonment of humanity, and the search for meaning in such a life. The group lightens up in the second part, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Régine's vocals give the song a light, airy feel, even when she describes "dead shopping malls" with no end in sight. The predicament felt by the group is aptly summarized by the opening lines: "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/'Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.'"
Musically, The Suburbs is their most consistent album yet. The instruments do not always match the spirit of the vocals, but are used to bolster them and move the album forward. While the album overall feels a bit preachy, it sufficiently depicts the life of the average suburbian, acknowledges the group's rise from obscurity to indie rock royalty, and pushes them in a new direction.
Prasanna's Grade: A-