“I WOULD LIKE to think that in ten years’ time, if people were to greet a new Arcade Fire album with that sort of build-up, we would have long since called it a day.” So said the group’s frontman Win Butler three years ago, in response to a contention from his drummer that Sylvester Stallone’s revival of the Rocky franchise was “not as bad as you might expect”.
Butler may scoff at low expectations, but the feverish anticipation that preceded Neon Bible in 2007 brought its own problems. Like Radiohead with The Bends, the group’s second album sounded like the work of a band shouting to silence the voices of self-doubt in their heads. They could have hardly sounded more intense than they did on songs such as ‘Black Mirror’. Nevertheless, two months ahead of The Suburbs, a vinyl release of its title track depicted a group that sounded relaxed. “In my dreams we’re still screaming/And running through the yard,” sang Butler on the mid-tempo track that opens their third album.
In exploring his childhood memories, Butler’s words act as a microcosm of what follows: seemingly a meditation on the Texan sprawl that he left behind. It’s a conceit that works best on the album’s most ambivalent songs. On ‘City With No Children’, Butler sounds like a man questioning his motives in returning home: “Never trust a millionaire/Quoting the sermon on the mount/I used to think I was not like them/But I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
Butler delivers the most touching moment on the string-laden ‘Sprawl I’: “Took a drive into the sprawl/To find the places we used to play/It was the loneliest day of my life.” Sadly, it isn’t all up to that standard. Only with the subdued jangle of ‘Suburban War’ and the mesmeric ‘Month of May’ does The Suburbs climb out of a slump that afflicts the best part of five songs. At 16 tracks in total, it could be argued that Arcade Fire can spare a few misfires. But given Butler’s aversion to faint praise, he probably wouldn’t thank you for saying so.
© Pete Paphides, The Times, 31 July 2010