When we last left the Arcade Fire, they were raging against organized religion in 2007's Neon Bible. Three years later, Bible's follow-up, The Suburbs, conveys less spite and more suffering. On songs like "Modern Man" and "Suburban Wars," Win Butler sings about the weight of his memories, about jumping fences to leave his past behind; he sounds plaintive, even hurt. "I hide inside of my private prison," he sings on "City with No Children," as handclaps and a heavy bassline pull the melody along. Absent the band's trademark epic instrumentation found on Funeral and Bible, the simple structure of "City" still manages to deliver a huge emotional impact and marks the spot where Suburbs begins to show the growth of the band's music. Tonally, things may have calmed down, but they haven't lost any intensity; the Arcade Fire hasn't faded, they've evolved.
And it's not all doom and gloom either -- "Month of May" is driving, scuzzy, even hip-shaking; "Empty Room" shines when you hear Régine Chassagne's clear voice descanting along with furiously sawing strings; "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is a sugary, electro-tinged confection; and the ache and wist of "We Used to Wait" is intensified by staccato keyboards and punches of percussion. These songs may be about desolation and despair, but they certainly don't suggest that we should stay stuck in the mire -- not when there's redemption to be sought and found. On "Half Light II (No Celebration)," Butler returns to his earlier metaphor and sings, "Wanna wash away my sins/ In a prison cell, my friends... You and I, we head back east/ To find the town where we can live/Even in the half light we can see the sun/It's gotta give." Hope, it seems, is out there. Lyrically, Butler & co. have never been more poignant.