Arcade Fire is a band that knows what it means to live in the 21st century. They know what it means to be paranoid by their television, to bask in the empty glow of streetlights and to glide through crowded city streets and feel a certain sense of loneliness that can’t be adequately touched or described. That’s why The Suburbs managed to debut at number one on Billboard. To put that accomplishment in perspective: A band that has made a trademark of soaring violins and existential lyricism outsold Eminem. And that makes perfect sense, because Arcade Fire has that unique gift to make listeners feel a little less alien in an increasingly alien world.
Yet some degree of that feeling that is lost on The Suburbs, compared to earlier releases that propelled the group to greater emotional heights. This is the curse of over-production. There needs to be a certain amount of error, a vocal crack here, a tempo fluctuation there, or maybe just a few wrong notes. To err is human nature—to produce a work that elimates that natural aspect is to weaken the ability of a person to truly relate to it.
What’s truly baffling is that the beautifully macabre voice of the male singer, Win Butler, is masked. His restrained yelps and melodic frustration have always propelled the band’s songs into a ferocious intensity. On The Suburbs, Butler’s voice is often lost among waves of multilayered instrumentation and many times takes a back seat when it should be a driving force. If you’re waiting for Butler’s cries to take off on any given song, don’t— most songs back off and simply move on without reaching any significant climax. After the title track and “Modern Man,” there’s an entire fifty minutes left to the album, and no real musical peaks.
At least the group’s female vocalist, Régine Chassagne, finally gets some much-deserved attention. Her vocal talents practically made Arcade Fire’s initial self-titled EP, yet for some bizarre reason have since been restricted. On “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” the best track on The Suburbs, Chassagne’s voice ultimately crafts all of the emotion, as her melodies tenderly bite at the lush synths swaying in the background.
Because of the band’s consistent lyrical prowess, The Suburbs retains the mystique and personal hold of Arcade Fire’s prior works. The difference here is that while Funeral and Neon Bible were coated with optimism, The Suburbs leaves you with feelings of desperation and resignation. The album even begins with a mournful refrain in the opening chorus of the first song and title track: “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling again.”
The band is starting a conversation throughout the album without offering many concluding remarks. They’re screaming doubts of ever returning to the world they grew up in. They barrage the listener with imagery of cities and parking lots that are achingly empty and vaguely evil, encircling them and yet rejecting them at the same time. All of these pictures are echoes of an unabashedly modern world that is poured out of fluorescent lights and ghoulish skyscrapers. So while Arcade Fire has fallen under the spell of overproduction, they’re still doling out bits of magic and plenty of resonance. The Suburbs helps us feel less alone, and more unified—which makes this effort an undeniably important album, both musically and emotionally.