Yummy. A new Arcade Fire album. At The Quietus I came across a rather pithy summary of the band's development "from Funeral (people die) to Neon Bible (EVERYONE DIES!) to The Suburbs (but, y'know, it's not going to happen today so just chill out)" which immediately makes you think that everything's alright, the water's lovely, come on in. Don't be entirely taken in by that notion though. There's still a big sound and plenty of drama, the lyrics talk of bombs falling, things ending and even a time when "San Francisco's gone", Arcade Fire have always had the knack of making a track sound grand and dramatic. The reason for the more relaxed approach, from band and listener alike, is that Win Butler has chosen to write about his upbringing in Texas. This is a slightly wistful and nostalgic look backwards with only the occasional worried look forwards and with a greater emphasis on tunes that stick and melodies you can't help but hum later in the day there is an unalloyed pleasure to listening to this new album which clocks in at over an hour (although could have been much longer apparently).
From the opening chords of the title track with its plonked piano and strumming acoustic guitars we are immediately in warmer terrain. It is also noticeable immediately that Win Butler's voice is maturing into something far more controlled and varied than the impassioned screech that characterised their early work and recalls Neil Young (The Suburbs), Bruce Springsteen (Suburban War)and M Ward (Wasted Hours) amongst others. And whilst he may not sound anything like Nick Cave there's something of his narrative strength here, a nice lyrical clarity with some phrases repeated through the album. As well as looking back to a childhood of seemingly endless leisure (Wasted Hours), of tribes formed (Suburban War - 'We keep erasing all the streets we grew up in/Now the music divides us into tribes/Choose your side, I'll choose my side), stifled creativity (Sprawl II - 'They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock), and defiance (Sprawl I - 'Cops showing their lights/On the reflectors of our bike/Said "Do you kids know what time it is?"/Well, sir, it's the first time I felt like something is mine) Butler looks forward to the time of making his own family and his worries about the kind of world they're growing into.
There are sixteen tracks so I won't pull them all apart but there's some lovely bombast on the pretension-bursting Rococo (Let's go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words that they don't understand), frenetic strings and floating vocals on Empty Room and current album favourite is Sprawl II, a synth-led pop gem with vocals from Régine Chassagne. What's most gratifying about the album is that it feels like the work of a band who are here to stay. Some were ready to write them off after Neon Bible but there's a depth to the songwriting here that shows Arcade Fire are more than just a gang of noisy cranks. In the highly personal Sprawl I where Butler struggles to locate the home and playgrounds of his youth,
The last defender of the sprawl said
"Well, where do you kids live?"
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer's worth
Been searching every corner of the earth...
With three strong albums Arcade Fire have certainly found a home in the hearts of fans and the combination of lyrical introspection and varied music on this album is a fine recipe to add a few more to that roster.