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Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

It seems like every distinctive band reaches this point. They become so good at delivering a particular sound, even an emotional atmosphere, that they seem to get stuck in a very beautiful rut. Don't get me wrong, Arcade Fire's third studio album The Suburbs is a superb collection of songs that is among this year's best, but it's nothing you haven't heard before if you've listened to the band's other work. Whereas Neon Bible was a clear evolution from the solid groundwork set by Funeral, The Suburbs just feels like half a new idea surrounded by aural comfort food.

The Suburbs takes a little while to get started. The opening title track is all well and good as a rinky-dink ballad of world-weariness as only Win Butler can write, but it goes on a minute or so too long. “Ready to Start” is a straightforward rock track without any particularly interesting flourishes and “Modern Man” is intriguing, if only as a Cars song that never was.

The album actually picks up with the strange, staccato “Rococo”. It peddles in some of Neon Bible's sense of menace, only it's a bit more playful and theatrical. The following track, “Empty Room”, is sure to be a favorite sing-along at Arcade Fire's routinely awesome concerts. It captures the simultaneously vast and stripped-down sound the band does so well. “City With No Children” finds Butler at his most narrative, telling a confessional (and probably quite fictional) story in front of pub rock guitars and spare percussion.

The two-part “Half Light” is, for me, the highlight of The Suburbs. The first half is lush and melancholy while the second is rather exhilarating, though in a subtle way. What follows it, “Suburban War”, maybe tries a bit too hard to return to the album's motif. It has its proggy moments that sound more than a little ridiculous next to the driving rock of “Month of May”. The following two tracks, “Deep Blue” and “We Used To Wait”, feel like a late-album slump. Like the first few songs, they neither diverge enough from Arcade Fire's older work nor contribute anything memorable to the record.

I could do without Part I of “Sprawl” as it's a 3-minute moan that doesn't really go anywhere. Part II, however, is a surprising disco-ish track awash in tasteful synth and even a bit of a Kate Bush flare for the more unusual side of pop. It lifts The Suburbs up but it's also such an ill-fitting end that the quick reprisal of the opening track that follows it seems more functionally necessary than artistically apt.

Arcade Fire's albums have had an arc to them. Funeral felt like the wild, dangerous years prior to an apocalypse and Neon Bible felt like the scary, important opening days of said apocalypse. In its own way, The Suburbs manages to round out the meta-trilogy with the sound of the post-apocalyptic reconstruction. There are some inevitably new things in the mix, but there's also a lot of old junk from the world that was. It just doesn't play solidly from start to finish, but the parts that are worth keeping are absolute gems.