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Arcade Fire: 'The Suburbs'

Since their classic 2004 debut Funeral, Arcade Fire has risen to the top of the indie rock world. Their new release, The Suburbs, is one of the most anticipated albums of the year in any genre. Fronted by even-keeled vocalist Win Butler, the group stretched their musical wingspan out as far as they can, giving themselves 63 minutes of music on the new, protracted disc. This is significantly more material than on Funeral, as well as the group’s 2007 album Neon Bible. Alas, quantity does not necessarily equal quality here, as the group’s sound becomes stagnant over 16 tracks and fails to capture the magic of their first two releases.

The album’s name represents the concept of the disc, as Butler nostalgically hums his way through his various experiences as a youth in the suburbs of Houston. At times, the lyrics are a little too romantic (“Shopping malls rise like mountains upon mountains”), but when Butler refers to an annoyed policeman as “The last defender of the sprawl,” it’s hard not to get sucked in by his quixotic narration. Not everything is dandy and fun, however. The songs typically take serious turns, and the somber remnants of Neon Bible trickle obviously into The Suburbs. On “Half Light II”, second vocalist Régine Chassagne realizes that the other voices in her isolated world are “only echoes,” and in “Ready to Start”, Butler sings, “Businessmen are drinking my blood like the kids at art school said they would,” with resigned candor.

Whether the lyrics give off a James Murphy midlife crisis vibe or a content rustle, the music doesn’t shift much in any direction. Besides the tinkling title track and majestic Oracular Spectacular-channeling “The Sprawl II”, not many songs catch and hold the listener’s attention, with little sonic differentiation from start to finish of each. It’s as if Arcade Fire built a shimmering wall of sound for every song, but when one wishes to break through that wall to discover profundity and intricacies, there is only empty space behind it. Tracks like “We Used to Wait” and “Month of May” start strongly, but fizzle into ordinary LP fodder. Nothing on The Suburbs matches the depth or excitement of earlier masterpieces such as “Neighborhood #1”, “Wake Up”, and “No Cars Go”.

The assessment here is that Arcade Fire has made an album that is too long for its own good. The length gives the listener too much of the same thing. With less-inspired songwriting and structures than their previous two albums, the band seems to have taken a small step back. That being said, this is still one of the most talented indie collectives in the country, and no matter how vacant the space is behind that shimmering wall of sound, Win Butler and his pals have still built something noteworthy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Download: “The Suburbs” and “The Sprawl II”

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