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Music Review

Arcade Fire: 'The Suburbs'

By
'The Suburbs' Arcade Fire
Released on Monday, Aug 2 2010

When Arcade Fire released their debut album, Funeral, back in 2004, the outpouring of critical love was overwhelming. In retrospect the response seems a little over-the-top, but in a musical landscape dominated by post-Strokes stripped-back guitar-pop you could understand why a band showing even a little sonic ambition was so admired, and even after the dust settled, you had to say that they probably earned most of the plaudits. Equally, if it was easy to accuse Arcade Fire of pretentiousness, at least the band reminded us how much fun a bit of self-regarding ostentation is when compared to endless streams of groups who look and sound just like their fans. Follow-up Neon Bible upped the ante in 2007, its swankier packaging containing more grandiose arrangements that some considered overblown. To be fair, it was, but it actually hung together as an album a shade better than its predecessor, despite lacking the same standouts.

So to The Suburbs, the long-awaited third album which some have predicted will see the band clocking up the sales figures to match all their acclaim. It's already stormed straight into the UK album charts at No.1, and the band will crown that success with headline performances at the Reading and Leeds Festivals later this month. So, are Arcade Fire poised to be the next Kings of Leon / Muse / Radiohead etc? Listening to The Suburbs, it could really go either way. This is still pretty out there compared to most mainstream rock records. It's a 16-track concept album "about" the suburbs, with song titles including 'Rococo', 'Half Light II (No Celebration)', 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' and 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' that are definitely enough to get the eyes rolling. However, the band have actually reined in the excesses of Neon Bible to craft a really solid rock 'n' roll LP with a clutch of fantastic potential singles.

'Ready To Start' and 'We Used To Wait' are all build-up and release, pounding verses and layers of sound giving way to swooping choruses as instruments collide with one another in a guitar-led indie symphony. 'Empty Room' mixes the floaty shoegazing vibe of Slowdive with a slick 2010s Wall Of Sound sheen that blows away everything in its path. 'Month Of May' is the most trad thing Arcade Fire have ever recorded - just under four minutes of punky grunge that pummels you into submission, sounding like what the band's dear friend David Bowie was grasping for and missing with Tin Machine 30 years ago. The aforementioned 'Sprawl II' survives its awkward title to mix up Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' and yet more Slowdive/Johnny Boy to lighten affairs with a cheery bounce. The most ear-catching melody comes on 'Suburban War', whose sad guitar twangs and refrained vocals tug at the heartstrings before another full-on rock-out rips them to shreds a minute before the end.

There's a point where ambition teeters on the edge of self-indulgence, and at over an hour, The Suburbs definitely hovers over it at times like a nervous tightrope walker. It could lose four, five or even six songs and be a much better album for it, while the snatches of words you can make out on the first dozen airings don't really encourage you to dig out the lyric sheet and follow what's actually going on. That said, there's definitely still enough quality here to keep the band from toppling over into a safety net. If The Suburbs is to be the album that flings Arcade Fire into the A-league of mainstream success, then it's hard to deny they deserve it.

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