Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible hit a peak with “No Cars Go,” a song reclaimed from the band’s debut EP and converted into a shimmering, epiphanic vision of a future stretching out like an unsullied field. Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, is like one long sequel to “No Cars Go.” It extends the slick, synthesizer-washed sound, in service of songs that take a closer look at what’s become of a once-promising dream. The Suburbs is full of songs about sprawl, decay, and disagreement—interspersed with jittery rockers like “Month Of May” and moody post-punk ballads like “Modern Man”—and while previous Arcade Fire albums confronted the terrors of everyday life with a push toward transcendence, on The Suburbs, frontman Win Butler frequently sounds defeated.
Which isn’t to say that The Suburbs is a bummer. The album packs 16 songs into an hour, and by and large, this is some of Arcade Fire’s most straightforward work to date—to the extent that it takes a few spins for some of the songs to distinguish themselves. But point of view matters, and Butler and company imbue The Suburbs with such a strong sense of place and mood that it builds in impact throughout. The record is structured a lot like an argument, with Butler (along with his wife and musical partner Régine Chassagne) singing about feeling trapped by school buses and “houses built in the ’70s,” then following that weary resignation with songs about escaping into the night and feeling “like something’s mine.” And when Arcade Fire falls back on what it does best, delivering surging anthems like “Ready To Start,” “City With No Children,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” the group finds a sense of hope in the realization that its possible to make a home anywhere—and if not, there’s always another frontier.