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Canadian wunder-group go all conceptual on stuffed-to-bursting third album
Peter Murphy, 12 Aug 2010
The third album is always the unruly one. If Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible tour propelled them from the status of weirdo underdogs to great white hopes, the first live act in years to inspire sweaty old-school U2/Bruce/Strummer fervour in an age of lip-synced, autotuned rock and pop swindles, The Suburbs sees the band come down off the cross and have some, um, fun. Which is not something we automatically associate with Win and Regine’s mob of end-times minstrels. Intensity, yes, often to the point that we forget the Arcadians are just a band, not a cargo cult.
But for all its musical butterflying, The Suburbs is a lyrically weighty artifact. It’s a record about the itch of phantom limbs, transplanted roots, the ache you feel when you return to the old hometown, retro notions of modernism. Its system of images includes hot asphalt, bicycle wheels, skateboards and stucco. If Funeral was a bunker transmission and Neon Bible a sermon from the mount, this is a mini-series directed by a Sundance graduate.
The ’burbs referred to throughout the album might be those of Houston in the ‘80s, but the songs share spiritual terrain with the hazy, dreamy streets of Detroit as described in Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Join the dots from there via Sofia Coppola and we arrive at a museum of postwar Americana as curated by Kevin Shields (and more than once we’re reminded of the wintry overdubs on early Bunnymen and Waterboys records, or the mournful grandeur of their heirs, The Decemberists).
So, one might be forgiven for considering The Suburbs as a sort of Arcadian ark built to preserve a sample of every conceivable species of song. Before, the ensemble seemed intent on compressing entire compendia into four minutes. Here they’ve taken the time to explore the many avenues of the sprawl.
The title tune is a country strumalong that might at first be perceived as slight, but by virtue of length and breadth sneakily tranforms itself into an unassuming epic. ‘Ready To Start’ is a Motown stomper with clever keyboard touches and whooshy spacerock surges. ‘Month of May’ is part protest against hipster apathy (“I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light/But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?”), part rite of spring, spray painted with Ramones glam-punk guitars and hitched to a Velvets turbo-chug. And ‘Sprawl II’, a Moroder-era new wave/disco hybrid, is a dizzy delight.