2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Mercury)
Arcade Fire have a record of navigating potentially ruinous and conceptual territory with unmatched deftness on a grand scale. Their debut, Funeral, approached themes of death with stunning emotional vigour, while the oft-bemoaned Neon Bible found Win Butler and company examining celebrity, war and religion. So, The Suburbs may seem like a step back on the Butler scale of conceptual grandiosity. But in dissecting and revisiting seemingly mundane themes of middle-class upbringing in the suburbs.
Butler manages to tease out any number of emotionally complex themes, hanging his introspective longing for family and connection, and his nostalgic – but never overly sentimental – memories of a normal childhood on a True Stories backdrop to mesmerising effect. The Suburbs is the sort of album that manages to look forward with one eye in the rear-view mirror, both musically and thematically. “Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man,” Butler sings on Ready To Start. This combination of modernity and childhood not so far gone comes up again and again on The Suburbs, Butler often comparing his current state as a not-quite-adult with a sort of “the kids these days” attempt to get a grasp on modern suburban life. “You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount,” Butler sings on City With No Children. “I used to think I was not like them, but now I have my doubts.”
And, as with Arcade Fire’s previous works, The Suburbs is not only conceptually sound, but gorgeously rendered in spot-on musical brilliance. Rare is the modern indie-rock band who aren’t afraid to call their hits, Babe Ruth style, and swing for the cheap seats. As Arcade Fire’s live show has expanded to include arenas, so has their sound grown into a bounding, often anthemic, spectacle. This is not twee introspection; somehow Butler has managed to craft a stadium album for a coffee-house audience. Perhaps the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying album of the year, The Suburbs is an album that demands conscious thought, hiding dissertation-level examination on a readily accessible and fist-pumpingly exuberant pop veneer.
It’s like the “ocean in a shell” from Half Light I; Arcade Fire have managed to bottle something vast and unknowable in The Suburbs, and their achievement is something to celebrate.
What we said: “One of the 21st century’s most intelligent and satisfying bands – musically, lyrically and emotionally – have once again set out their stall, and once again produced a work of inspired resonance, capturing truth after truth, in all its muddled, human realism.”