After the brilliance of their debut Funeral, Arcade Fire seemed to be in danger of never being able to match it. It was so good, the second album was almost inevitably going to fall short. Neon Bible was never less than good, and had its great moments (No Cars Go, Intervention, Windowsill) but seemed to be hinting at heading in a U2 style direction of preachy bombast, and suggested they might ultimately become just another 'big' stadium band. Which makes the varied and expanded musical palate of The Suburbs all the more welcome. It is an outstanding piece of work which shows just what a great band this is.
Unlike either of the first 2 albums, this one got me on first listen, and has been getting better and better ever since. A month on repeat on my car cd player has not detracted from its sustained excellence. 16 tracks could be insufferable from a less interesting band(and could be regarded as commercial suicide in the age of the ipod shuffle), but here it ensures there is so much to discover that it takes weeks to get at all tired of it. I don't think I have ever heard an album of this length without a single bad track (Rococo is the only one I sometimes skip) and where you don't want to pick out favourites, but play the whole thing.
Of course it helps that there is a continuity of theme and lyrics throughout the album, as was the case with Funeral, but here more so, with repeated lines and themes turning up in different songs connecting the whole thing and giving the album a circularity and feeling that this is a piece of work in several parts, not just a collection of songs. But there is also a variety of styles here that the band has not previously explored, from the punky Month of May to the electro pop of Sprawl 2. Overall it is more restarined and low key without so much of the massive crescendos we are used to hearing from them, but with more subtlety and layers to discover. Some of my personal favourites include the 2 Half Light tracks, which are both beautifully atmospheric and evocative, and sound like nothing they have done before; Suburban War which slowly builds momentum and emotion, and contains the great lines 'now the cities we live in could be distant stars/ and I search for you in every passing car'; and City With No Children with its irresistable repeated riff.
Lyrically and vocally its easily Win Butler's best effort, gone are the occasinally clunky rhymes and in its place is maturity of voice and songcraft. Regine, who was a little in the background on Neon Bible also sounds great on lead vocals on Empty Rooms and Sprawl 2, and the two of them duet to great effect on Half Light 1.
The Suburbs sounds more like a sequel to Funeral than NB did, both musically and with its themes of neighbourhood and growing up, but it also shows Arcade Fire have moved on from Funeral, expanded their range, and matured with new subtleties and nuances, whilst living up to the promise of their debut. A briliantly crafted record from a band in a league of their own.