When you call your first album Funeral, you set the bar high in terms of your maturity level. How can any young band evolve toward that full-grown third album after starting out with a meditation on death and grief? It’s no problem for Arcade Fire — these Montreal indie rockers are not shy about gunning for a solemn, grandiose, three-hankie anthem every time out. The best song on their last disc, “No Cars Go,” was a dead ringer for Neil Diamond’s flag-waving classic “America,” which gives a sense of the gargantuan scale of their anthemizing. On their fantastic third album, The Suburbs, they aim higher than ever, with Roman numerals and parentheses in the song titles. In their dictionary, “suburbs” is nowhere near “subtlety.” But that just adds to the emotional wallop.
Their first two discs, 2004’s Funeral and its 2007 sequel, Neon Bible, peaked with songs about scared kids hiding from their parents. In “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go,” the kids hide by escaping into dreams and sharing guilty secrets with one another. But on The Suburbs, they open up to see family life from the parents’ perspective — a much harder trick. “I want a daughter while I’m still young,” Win Butler sings on the magnificent opening theme, “The Suburbs.” “I wanna hold her hand/And show her some beauty/Before this damage is done.”
The strange thing about Arcade Fire is how they instinctively scale their most intimate confessions to arena-rock levels, rolling out big drums and glossy keyboards. Unlike their mentors U2 and Bruce Springsteen, they don’t have much interest in everyday details; the closest they come is when Butler sings about driving to Houston “as we listened to the sound of the engine failing.” (Springsteen would tell you what went wrong with their carburetor. “You gotta put fuelie heads in that 396, pal!”) But that’s part of what has made these guys so hugely popular: You can hear how hard they’re trying, and that becomes part of the excitement.
Butler, his wife, Régine Chassagne, and their many helpmates sing about enthusiasm degenerating into scenester shtick (“Rococo”) and indie bands feeling burdened by fame (“Ready to Start”). As Butler grouses, “Businessmen, they drink my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would.” Yet he doesn’t trust the art-school kids either, leaving him confused in a world where, as he sings, “All of the houses they built in the Seventies finally fall/It meant nothing at all.”
Speaking of the Seventies, the musicians have clearly been digging out their parents’ vintage vinyl German art-rock records, especially locked-groove rhythm meisters like Can and Neu! The faster tunes, like “Ready to Start” and “Month of May,” are leaner and meaner than you’d expect. Ballads like “Deep Blue” go for the swishy piano pomp of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory — which was his own album about the dance between parents and kids. In “Month of May,” the band sings about the rock audience turning into a scene where “the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight.” It could have been a tiresome get-off-my-lawn screed. But it ends up sounding tender and empathetic instead, because Arcade Fire aren’t so far from any of the kids — or parents — on The Suburbs.