Music: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire * * * * *
Last year, during downtime after their Neon Bible tour, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler received an email from a childhood friend who had lived in the same neighbourhood in the outskirts of Houston, Texas.
The friend included a contemporary photograph of himself and his young child, and the image triggered memories of Butler's own past, growing up in middle class American suburbia.
When Butler, his Canadian wife Regine Chassagne and brother Will -- plus the other four members of the Montreal-based band -- set about working on this, their third album, the photo would prove to be a key inspiration.
The first song written was the album's title track, an epic statement of intent that would fuel the central theme of this concept album -- a study on the impermanent nature and lack of a defined identity of the typical suburb as well as the inexorable passing of childhood.
Arcade Fire have looked at neighbourhoods before, especially on their stunning debut, Funeral, an album often considered the very best of the 2000s. But while that album had a make-believe quality about it, The Suburbs is more prosaic, clearly rooted in the band members' own recollections of carefree formative years, of dreams and aspirations, of wanting to escape suburbia and wishing to stay within its soothing grasp.
Their sound has evolved too. The euphoric chamber pop of before is intact -- and as rousing as ever -- but they have incorporated elements of new wave and honed the love of Springsteen that was so apparent on Neon Bible.
The Suburbs runs to 16 tracks and 64 minutes, which is considerably longer than their last two albums, yet it never feels over-long or over-cooked. Butler takes the bulk of the lead vocals, with Chassagne on three, and the tempo chops and changes constantly.
The album revels in its eclecticism, yet its myriad influences work together marvellously. There are rock out songs (Ready to Start, Modern Man), flights of orchestral fancy (the strange and wonderful Rococo), huge Springsteen-like anthems (City with No Children, Suburban War), punk attacks (Month of May), wistful ballads (Wasted Hours) and dreamy ambient background noise redolent of Brian Eno (Deep Blue).
The album's centrepiece is provided by The Sprawl I and II. The first sees Butler ruminate on a faintly remembered childhood, while the latter finds Chassagne in full-on Blondie-meets-Fever Ray mode as she sings of "dead shopping malls" over a hugely appealing synth motif.
July has been a superb month for music, with Janelle Monae and Perfume Genius responsible for wonderful albums, but this epic work will be a contender for album of the year come December.
Burn it: The Suburbs; Rococo; The Sprawl I (Flatland); The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)