Third bullseye out of three from these 'fiercely rousing' art-rockers
(Sonovox, out tomorrow)
The curious thing about Canada is that it is both big (the world’s second-largest country) and relatively small (just over 30m people, putting it 36th in the world). The same is true of the best of Canada’s many fine rock bands.
The Arcade Fire are big enough to be the Saturday headliners at this year's Reading Festival, yet small enough to be a cult. This seven-piece band from Montreal haven’t had a top 10 hit, and there are music lovers who have still to hear their fiercely rousing brand of art-rock. But for anyone who does know them, this is the most mouthwatering release of the year so far.
The Suburbs is their third album, following on from Funeral (2005) and Neon Bible (2007). Funeral was such a strong debut that it was named as an album of the year here and in many other places, and went on to be crowned Album of the Decade by Rolling Stone magazine. Neon Bible was more of the same, in a good way: no sign of the difficult second album there.
The trouble with making an effortless second album is that you are then more likely to have a difficult third one, rather as a sunny childhood can lead to a tortured adolescence. In both scenarios, the central question to be faced is how much to change while remaining yourself.
In the biosphere of rock, adapting to survive is not compulsory. Some species flourish by refusing to change – just look at Oasis, Status Quo, Sade, or the whole of heavy metal. But others do adapt, and they tend to be the most compelling figures, from the Beatles and David Bowie through to Damon Albarn and Elbow.
From the opening bars of The Suburbs, it’s clear that the Arcade Fire have opted for evolution. The title track begins with a rolling piano motif that could be by Badly Drawn Boy. It’s warm and likeable, but their own mothers wouldn’t have spotted it as the work of Win Butler and Regine Chassaigne, the married couple who share singing duties for the Arcade Fire.
Fans who love them for their dramatic powers will be disappointed – but not for long, as the track gradually ascends to a kind of grandeur. And this turns out to be the pattern running through the album.
The songs often start somewhere unexpected, whether it’s angsty Blur-ish pop (Modern Man), quickfire Buzzcocks punk (Month Of May), glacial New Order synthesisers (Rococo) or genial campfire folk (Wasted Hours), yet they all end up sounding like the Arcade Fire. It’s a musical version of those orienteering exercises in which people are dropped somewhere unfamiliar and told to find their way home.
Slotted in among these semi-experiments are a few songs that could well have appeared on the first two albums. Ready To Start and Empty Room are pumping anthems, powered by rollicking basslines, that will light up Reading and Leeds. And when the snappy-but-spooky Half Light II gets into its stride, the crowd won’t know whether to clap along or give a great collective shudder.
The only thing that doesn’t entirely work is the album’s theme. The Arcade Fire’s take on the suburbs is original – they go back home (to various Canadian cities plus Houston, where Win Butler grew up) and find their neighbourhoods already changed, because they were built for convenience, not permanence.
This makes a change from rock’s traditional view of the suburbs as a place to escape from at all costs, and it’s admirably subtle and grown-up. But it isn’t universal – listeners in Britain may struggle to identify with songs called Sprawl and Sprawl II, unless they happen to live in Milton Keynes.
A theme is just a theme, however: it doesn’t matter half as much as the music. And these 16 songs contain not a single dud. Butler and company hurl themselves into their instruments, making every track more than the sum of its parts. They are superb at tension – creating it, sustaining it and resolving it – and adding layers and twists to a track to hold the interest. This album completes the best set of three albums by any new act of the 21st century.