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The Suburbs
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5 Stars - Masterpiece
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Release Date
August 1, 2010
Label
Merge Records

Style: Anthemic indie rock; compare to U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady

Top tracks: "Sprawl II," "Half Light II," "The Suburbs"

Remember that line about the rich man and the eye of the needle? Win Butler—lead singer of the indie rock superstars Arcade Fire—has his own little twist on the familiar words: "Never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount."

So Butler sings on "City with No Children," one of 16 songs on the band's new album, The Suburbs. But I don't think he's anti-wealth, strictly speaking. Butler—who grew up Mormon and took college theology classes, but now describes himself as "spiritual" but not a churchgoer—recently pledged, along with the rest of the band, to donate up to $1 million toward relief efforts in Haiti, matching the donations of fans. So, cash flow isn't an issue. No, Butler's anxieties stem from something a little more insidious: A culture that's grown so fast, and is built on such shallow, surface-level fascinations, it can't possibly last.

The third album from Montreal's Arcade Fire feels like the third chapter of a novel. In their opening salvo, 2004's Funeral, the group chronicled kids banding together to survive an onslaught of loss and grief. Then came 2007's Neon Bible, a clear-eyed chronicle of the unholy intersection of politics, commerce, and religion. The Suburbs picks up on both ideas, and expands them. It's an album about growing up in affluence and isolation. It's about a curiously modern malaise, about living in a world that threatens to numb our morals and suffocate our souls.

But this isn't just an alarm bell—it's a rallying cry. Butler and Co. aren't content to leave us suffering under a vision that's relentlessly bleak, so they marry their rousing lyrics to anthems built to reach the rafters and coax entire stadiums into singing along. The familiar touchstones—U2, Springsteen—are very much present, but they're mixed with references to everything from '50s pop to heartland rock—musical cues to cultural nostalgia, which bolster the sheer scope of their vision.

It's a visionary work, complex and cinematic. And their worldview is robust and multi-faceted: They bemoan a culture where an onslaught of pleasures dulls our senses, and in "We Used to Wait" they see a world that moves so fast, we've forgotten how to be patient. But there is sweetness, as well: Butler is unwilling to write off his "wasted hours" in the suburbs, and in "Half Light" he affirms that even if the culture collapses, the important stuff—intimacy, community, redemption from sin—is made to last forever.

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The Suburbs