You’ve heard all of the preview tracks. You’ve blinked at the array of one-joke album covers. You’ve studied the track list for clues. You’ve revisited the uneven, brilliant landscape of Funeral and the homogeneous near-perfection of Neon Bible. And you’ve waited. Anxiously. You’ve cursed the hours and anguished over which Arcade Fire would return: the languor-and-lemonade slackers of “The Suburbs?” The abandon-hope-all-ye hipsters of “Ready to Start?” The lo-fi NASCAR dads of “Month of May?”
Then you get it: it only takes the first few moments of the first track, which is a piece of music you have nearly memorized by now, but have always heard out of context. “The Suburbs” and The Suburbs really are about The Suburbs. This is a high-concept album about low-brow living. No matter how you color it, the view hardly changes. The album covers have already made this point clear. Take your car from one house to the next, from one town to the next, from one state, and still the song remains the same. What was that you were saying a moment ago about homogeneity? It’s a clever album theme and, possibly, a meta-narrative all at once, a self-critique of the steady-state Neon Bible. (More on meta-narrative, how about that leak of “Month of May,” which was otherwise set to launch in early June? Clever, clever.)
So the steady hands responsible for Neon Bible are back, but musically, the inconsistent madmen we thanked for Funeral have returned as well, with groundbreaking works (“Rococo,” “Suburban War”) standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside disposable ones (“Half Light I,” “Sprawl II”). Win Butler & Company have always blended something of a three-decade sound gazpacho, liquefying AOR, new wave, straight-up indie, smashmouth, and even noise rock, tolerating the somewhat comfortable label of “baroque,” but more often breaking ground by simply revisiting it. Dashes of vintage Springsteen, or the slightest whispers of Talking Heads flavor the meal. Like Radiohead, their keyboard work is not the end in itself and, like almost every major rock act that predates Jeff Buckley, they’re proudly sub-standard singers.
And as always, the LP is drenched with earnestness: the term “post-irony” seems forged for Arcade Fire alone.
They’ve struck again, with what time may prove to be their finest work: a greatest hits album comprising all new material. Go take a drive and decide.