2007’s Neon Bible found Arcade Fire sneaking early-’80s Bruce Springsteen into an abandoned church in Quebec and having him sing about antichrists in the television while the band kept the car running. It’s a safe bet that few among the legions who dropped to the floor in love after their first full listen of Funeral had the slightest clue that Springsteen owned a fraction of the influence from which that music emerged. And it’s just as certain that even fewer gave a flying dog turd about Springsteen themselves. So to hear Win Butler wear that affinity like a shocking tattoo on Neon Bible was an alienating experience for fans of the band’s debut LP.
Neon Bible was no Funeral, and even The Suburbs, for all its obvious brilliance, also suggests that the fire the band trapped in the bottle of Funeral burns at a different temperature these days. It still blazes, but its environment is just a bit less volatile and prone to fewer sparks, its flames have changed color from their atomic tangerine to some pale hue of iris. It’s neither better or worse, but perhaps a bit easier on the bottle it writhes in, a little less likely to burst. The more music Arcade Fire releases the more Funeral sounds like the document of a fevered imagination; everything that we hear now is the sound of the aftermath. It is still beautiful but more conventionally so, still rending but cautious, still spontaneous but self-conscious.
The foreboding atmospherics with which Neon Bible opened reflected the paranoia of a band suddenly struck by the discomforting possibility that Funeral had turned them into some big important band now, the sort that wears the ankle weights of fans’ expectations in the studio. Win Butler sang of “waking from a nightmare” only to find himself in some moonless landscape in the black of night. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, “shot by a security camera” as he struggled to even make out his own reflection in the “black mirror” of uncertainty. The track so seamlessly played like an outtake from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters that it was as if the band clung to that familiar ghost for comfort in the tortured terrain of the song.
“Keep the Car Running,” like “Antichrist Television Blues,” was an absolutely brilliant reclamation of the band’s powers after the album’s uncertain opening statement. And the rest of the record’s grab-bag of sounds spanned a range from pipe organ to woodwinds to hurdy gurdy that demonstrated nothing if not the boundless confidence of a band in full possession of its powers, fear of fame be damned. It was an excellent record on its own that never once approached the pathos of “Crown of Love” or “The Backseat,” and it seemed to almost deliberately sidestep the radiant unpredictability of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).”
Neon’s grandiose departure from the sound they honed on Funeral continues with The Suburbs, if a bit more quietly. A palm tree arches over an aging sedan on the cover art’s fading canvas as if to signal that the band is more at ease after the venting of their last LP. The record is less bombastic and opens on a noticeably more settled note than that darker predecessor with its breezy gem of a title track. “Ready to Start” crackles with all the sunny adrenaline of “Keep the Car Running,” and the haunted “Deep Blue” is quite possibly the finest piece of music the band has ever put to tape. The lyrics themselves are a restorative measure that heal the fractured psyche explored on “Black Mirror,” as Butler sings of being back in his own skin where he “can finally begin” and do so at a pace so completely his own that he kicks back and watches the century pass him by. A more majestic four minutes cannot be found on any other album released this year.
And yet “We Used to Wait,” the very next track, somehow manages to sustain the power of its predecessor. Suddenly Butler’s not so sure about all that talk of self-assuredness he just got done with on “Deep Blue.” The lovers he sings about find their lives in the throes of change and can only “hope that something pure can last.” Regine Chassagne, who spends much of the album waiting behind its velvet curtain, returns to center stage with a stunning nod to new-wave on “Sprawl II (Beyond Mountains).” Her voice floats through the song’s misted air of whining synths that at times recalls the blue ruin of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” If the record’s energy flounders occasionally on the many tracks between these high points, it is only because its best moments set standards no band can possibly expect to meet for the full length of an LP.
The Suburbs is superior to Neon if only by a horse’s nose at Belmont Stakes, and as a whole it is the band’s finest statement to date even if moments on Funeral scale heights the band is still yet to revisit. Only The National’s High Violet has any claim to the throne Arcade Fire seizes with this LP.