Montreal's Arcade Fire ponders suburban living on the band's best album yet

Rock ‘n’ roll and the suburbs go way back. In 1958, when Eddie Cochran caught the “Summertime Blues,” it was because his parents wouldn’t let him take the car and go for a drive — about the only thing you can do when you’re 16 and have no money.

The following decade, the hippies took a more concerted stand against mom and dad’s middle-class values, paving the way for the disaffected punks, chest-beating hardcore kids and shoulder-shrugging grungies of subsequent generations.

Into this great tradition lumbers the seven-piece Arcade Fire, the biggest and most ambitious of the 21st century indie bands. On its first two albums, the Montreal-based group focused on death, mourning the loss of loved ones (2004’s artsy-fartsy “Funeral”) and anticipating the apocalypse (2007’s arena-rocking “Neon Bible”).

With “The Suburbs” (Merge), lead singer and main songwriter Win Butler looks back at suburban Houston, his childhood home, considering over the course of 16 songs what it means to grow up in a land of disposable convenience, a place “built to change.”

He doesn’t come up with any easy answers. This is not some kneejerk anti-burb punk record, and Butler does more than just dog on sprawl. On “Rococo” and “Month of May,” he’s suspicious of both the art-school kids who flee to the cities and townies who stand with “arms folded tight,” too apathetic to even try making their own happiness. On the leadoff title track, he dismisses a friend’s invitation to drive off and never look back. “I’m moving past the feeling,” he sings, a bit surprised at himself, finding comfort among the ‘70s-era houses and mountain-like shopping malls.

Elsewhere, Butler is more critical of his hometown and less keen on sticking around. “Modern Man,” the Arcade Fire’s entry into the au courant beach-pop-revival canon, trips over a hesitant beat—the perfect rhythmic underpinning for Butler’s lyrics. “In line for a number but you don’t understand,” he sings, nagged by the suspicion he’s losing his identity.

While the lyrics are ambiguous, the music is some of the most accessible of the Arcade Fire’s career. In keeping with the suburban theme, the group draws on several decades of housewife-approved hitmakers. “Ready to Start” is a goth-pop take on the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong”; “City With No Children” is the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” minus the street fighting; and “Suburban War” suggests the Byrds covering the Boss’s “I’m On Fire.” “Half Light II (No Celebration),” the disc’s epic midpoint, is pure Bono bombast, Gen Y’s “With or Without You.”

If “The Suburbs” has a single defining statement, it comes during “We Used to Wait,” when Butler sings, “Now our lives are changing so fast/ hope something pure can last.” In a sense, that wish has been central to all three Arcade Fire albums, and on this, the group’s best yet, it’s especially complicated. Never mind whether purity might persist; the better question, these songs remind us, is whether it exists in the first place.

— Kenneth Partridge

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