Arcade Fire isn't really into being subtle. Everything from their first two albums, the concepts, the amount of people they put on stage, the soaring vocals, the arrangements, just screamed big. Back in 2004, when their first album Funeral was released, it wasn't exactly the thing to do in the indie world. But after taking the world by storm, Arcade Fire now has a host of clones, admirers in the mainstream (John Legend anybody?), and a pervasive influence in culture that has even made their newest album shoot to #1 in Billboard America. But for all the attention that the album has gotten, I would say that although the conceptual material of The Suburbs is take-on-the-world big in typical Arcade Fire style, the way they go about it is surprisingly not. The Suburbs is 16 pop tracks with incredibly straightforward structures and arrangements compared to the two-part opuses of Funeral or the busy production of Neon Bible. Many of the songs also lack the emotional climaxes in each song that are so familiar to Arcade Fire fans and instead replaces them with an unsettling steadiness that no doubt contributes to the themes of the songs. As frontman Win Butler has stated, the album is "neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs - it's a letter from the suburbs", and fits into that unique scheme pretty consistently.
As Win and Regine sing about riding bikes down suburban streets, chasing the American dream up the corporate ladder, wasting time, being in punk rock bands, and working meaningless jobs, The Suburbs becomes an incredibly meaningful reflection on what it means to be a generation of people who live and die in the sprawling world of cul-de-sacs and shopping malls. Butler's stories seem to explore a variety of generations' experiences with suburban life from the Don Draper business man in "Modern Man" to a teenager's rebellion and subculture in "Suburban War", and even an old, cynical man's grumblings about technology in "We Used To Wait". The way Arcade Fire translates these stories musically is even more exciting though. By referencing different musical styles, they give each of these songs a setting and even reference particular decades. One of the best examples of this is "City With No Children", a song about living underground in fear of world war where they brilliantly reference classic Springsteen rock. In other parts of the album they do a punk rock song ("Month of May"), a disco-pop song ("Sprawl II"), and even a modern pop-rock song ("Modern Man"). I love the way they use the musical references for more than just nostalgia and instead pull meaning out of the style to compliment their lyrical insights.
Upon my first listening of the album, I thought it lacked variation and was a bit unorganized. But the structure and organization of the record really do play an integral part in the success of the album, which is laid out as two records with four songs on each side. Organized in this way, the flow of the album totally works as the pace picks up toward the end of each record (in "Half Light II" and "Sprawl II"). In some ways, The Suburbs feels like the conceptual antithesis of Funeral. Where Funeral was full of huge communal moments where it felt as if the whole word were singing alongside Butler, in The Suburbs we find those moments replaced with lonely falsettos and hollow reverbs. In terms of consistent songwriting and unparalleled overall success, The Suburbs also picks up where Funeral left off. Resonating with an entire generation trying to understand their suburban upbringing, it is the most complete and consistent conceptual album of the year.