“Sometimes I can’t believe it/ I’m moving past the feeling,” Win Butler sings a few moments into the winsome title track to Arcade Fire’s excellent third album, The Suburbs. We know that this guy is never “past” any feeling. He’s all feelings, all the time. Just a minute after singing that line, he worries about a suburban war and begs for a daughter to show “some beauty before all this is done.” It’s business as usual in Arcade Fire land after three years since releasing Neon Bible. It just so happens that business involves making albums that are among the most emotionally resonant — and not to mention classic — of the last half-century.
We’ve heard a million times that Funeral was about death, and it was at least widely understood that Neon Bible was probably about something else. (Religion? Probably.) This time out, the album title again indicates what Butler and company are concerned with. But it’s not the same soul-crushing suburbs of Revolutionary Road or its imitators. Butler positions the suburbs as a place that on one hand breeds nostalgia — he and brother Will grew up in the outskirts of Houston — and on the other leads him to worry about their uniformity.
This is a sprawling, 16-track album about the emptiness of the sprawl, about how you never see kids playing outside in the ‘burbs, about losing friends to complacency, about modern man’s loss of individuality, about loneliness and fear and the me-first rush of modern life, about worrying that kids aren’t rebellious enough, about war and wanting to feel something. “Something don’t feel right,” Butler sings on “Modern Man,” “In line for a number but you don’t understand.” Those kinds of sentiments could come off as treacle in other hands, but they tie in thematically with multiple threads here — accepting that wasted time is sometimes more meaningful than the stuff that “matters” (the lush “Wasted Hours”) and waiting for something better (the excellent “We Used to Wait For It”). And every theme in every song ties to another song in the same way. This is probably the most complete Arcade Fire album in that each song is but a part of the larger presentation.
For all the over-arching themes, The Suburbs is the most rocking Arcade Fire album yet. The frantic grooves and sermonizing of “Month of May” form the first Arcade Fire song likely to inspire fist pumping. The Regine Chassigne-sung “Sprawl II” imagines a world where Arcade Fire meets Depeche Mode meets the Knife circa “Heartbeats.” The off-on rhythms and the group harmonies of “We Used to Wait” build to a lighter-ready conclusion, while the pavement-cracking drums and instructions to “never trust a millionaire” of “City With No Children” is the most Bruce Springsteen-like Arcade Fire has ever gotten, beating the Hold Steady at its own game. From top to bottom, it’s hard to imagine that the people who deride this band for being too theatrical can keep saying that now.
Yet it all comes back to the thematic accomplishment here, doesn’t it? Arcade Fire, because they’re really this damn good, are among the very few indie bands that could attempt a 65-minute album about the philosophical quandaries of the suburbs and pull it off completely. At this point, they have no competition but themselves. No other band is this bold, this daring. As long as Arcade Fire is making records, the music world is a better place.