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Album review: Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"

arcade fireBigger does not mean better for Arcade Fire. (Gabriel Jones)

By Chris Richards

Expectations run dangerously high for Arcade Fire, a band so fluent in grand gestures fans expect nothing short of indie-rock transcendence. But how do you make a tour de force that doesn't sound tour-de-forced?

That's the riddle the band fails to solve on its third album, "The Suburbs." It's a billowy showpiece that embodies everything wrong with 21st-century rock music: the joyless grandiosity, the air-sucking humorlessness, the soggy sentimentality, all those fussy string arrangements. (U2 can be blamed for most of this.) When Arcade Fire debuted in 2004, its oversize ambition had its charms. In 2010, its music feels heavy-handed enough to karate-chop through every cinder block in Montreal.

That's the city the band -- led by singing and songwriting hubby-and-wife duo Win Butler and RĂ©gine Chassagne -- proudly called home when it emerged alongside a horde of Canadian indie-rock troupes about six years ago. The band's first two discs -- 2004's "Funeral" and 2007's "Neon Bible" -- were thick with melodramatic verses and overblown choruses. They drew praise to match.

Mercifully, "The Suburbs" is a touch more restrained, but the band still goes largely unchecked, exploding emotional glimpses of faux-intimacy into emotional swells of faux-profundity. It's as if they're transposing the vanilla puddle that separates Wes Anderson and James Cameron into rock-and-roll.

(A nostalgia trip to nowhere, after the jump)

Which means it's easy to get sucked into the band's cinematic bluster, even if you've been down this cul-de-sac before. Lyrically, Butler and Chassagne portray America's suburbs (where Butler grew up) as a place of quiet menace. But instead of investigating the complex, grown-up turf mapped out by John Cheever and Richard Yates so many decades ago, Butler keeps his gaze fixed on that black hole of a navel called childhood.

"The kids want to be so hard," he sings on the title track, the album's first and most promising cut. "But in my dreams we're still screaming and running through the yard." It's one of way too many songs in which Butler ruminates on murky childhood memories and soft-focus regrets. Few tracks shamble past without Butler mentioning "the kids." Thankfully, this first cut is rescued when the band's confident swing dovetails into an elegant chorus, harvesting sparks from the contact point between Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie.

After that, it's a nostalgia trip to nowhere. "Took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we used to stay," Butler sings on "Sprawl I (Flatland)," an anemic waltz as stultifying as its subject. "Couldn't read the number in the dark."

He remains a vexing frontman throughout. Singing in a distant midrange, Butler is rarely compelling enough to command the spotlight nor intriguing enough to draw you into his shadow. "The memory's fading," he sings on "Deep Blue," a song that relies entirely on his spectral crooning to get us to the finish. "I can almost remember singing, 'la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . .' " (Those time-biding la-la-las barely do the trick.)

That often leaves his six bandmates to negotiate the push-and-pull that makes Arcade Fire tick. Guitars always chime, drums always boom, keyboards always glisten, strings always weep. It's a sonic formula that's allergic to danger and devoid of surprise, with every cathartic chorus staring you down from a mile away.

There are two songs that take soft left turns. "Month of May" sounds like a feisty Neil Young fronting the Cars, and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" finds Chassagne mimicking the breathless charms of Abba. "The city lights shine," she chirps over plush synthesizers not often heard in the Arcade Fire arsenal. "They're calling at me, 'Come and find your kind.' "

It's the mildest of tweaks, but compared with the tightly scripted vibes that permeate "The Suburbs," it's bold, new terrain -- enough to make you wonder what might happen if this band ever decided to take some real risks.

Arcade Fire performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 6.

Recommended Track: "The Suburbs"

By Chris Richards  |  July 30, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags: Arcade Fire  
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The problem with music critics, is the key problem with this critic. They would much rather read their own vocabulary and expansive knowledge of music than enjoy what they are hearing. A cliche sadly portrayed in this instance. The new Arcade Fire album is certainly not like their prior albums, and not as this review projects either. It is a step in a new direction in terms of composition, tone and arrangement. As well there are some refreshing new instruments added into the mix. There is a joy to this album that the critic missed completely. Thankfully for the band, their fan base has stronger faith in them, than half-hearted critics. The new album is great. yup.

Posted by: benfeever | July 30, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure I understand the point of this review, or should I say faux-review? Yes, Arcade Fire is an over-the-top band who engage in grandiosity. But joyless? Give me a break. This is an ambitious multi-layered band. And those levels come together in cumulative summation to produce exciting music than is pretty much unrivaled today. Arcade Fire make you think, and they are an absolute joy to listen to.

Posted by: Mark81 | July 31, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't agree more with benfeever. i've listened to the album straight through maybe 6 or 7 times and i don't hear any of the malaise or boredom that chris richards is lamenting. Coming on the heels of two very succesful albums, Arcade Fire could have made a third that sounded like their previous work. That would have been disappointing and unoriginal. They didn't. Go back and listen to their discography. Each CD is its own unit, similar to what came before it, but distinct. As for 'the suburbs', its perfectly fine not to like the disc because you miss the arcing sounds and build up of 'funeral' or the consistent action in 'neon bible,' but to disparage it for being boring and bland is just wrong.

Posted by: wormsparkly | August 5, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

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