I wish the new Arcade Fire record were funnier. The Canadian arena-rockers (yes, arena-rockers! Two shows at Madison Square Garden this week! We did it, Internet!) may lack actual jokes, but they’re rich in unintentional hilarity—the absurd grandiosity of watching frontman Win Butler howl, “Working for the church while your family dies!” on Saturday Night Live in 2007 before peevishly smashing his guitar (his acoustic guitar!) onstage. Hysterical. “Dick in a Box” just can’t compare. You can’t help but love them for it: the apocalyptic overemoting, the swooning strings, the Springsteenian thrall, the pulverizing marching-band cacophony, the en masse quasi-militaristic bellowing that made past highlights like “No Cars Go” or “Wake Up” (which used to blare over the PA at the onset of every U2 concert, if that tells you anything) such a hoot.
Though it’s strange to say it about an hour-long record with 16 tracks (two of them “sequels”) and eight different album covers (Billy Corgan is enraged), The Suburbs, their third full-length, feels dismayingly dialed back. It’s profoundly self-serious, expertly workmanlike, occasionally transcendent, but lacking that childlike volatility, that glorious willingness to look and sound ridiculous. It’s rare that so much nonetheless leaves you wanting more. They’re shooting for Classic Status here, no doubt, their very own OK Computer by one critic’s count already (c’mon), though, as always, it’s closer to Born in the U.S.A., except most of them weren’t, this is a piss-poor soundtrack to dancing in the dark (either the literal or sexual definition), and these are no one’s glory days—not the band’s, not ours.
Let us begin with transcendence, though, via the frankly astonishing “We Used to Wait,” which neatly encapsulates many of the record’s Great Big Themes: nostalgia, the scourge of modernity, the paralyzing fear and boredom of anticipation, whether you’re craving arrival or escape. “I used to write,” Butler warbles at the onset, his voice as winsomely pained and bleating as ever, nicely paired with stabbing piano. “I used to write letters, I used to sign my name.” But no one does, of course, anymore: “Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that somethin’ pure can last.” (The word “pure” shows up often here, a dangerous word indeed, when big-shot arena-rockers try and define it.) The track’s orchestral grandeur builds—Régine Chassagne, Butler’s wife and principal bandmate, floats in for the “Ooooooh, we used to wait” chorus, an always-welcome softening and sweetening. The second verse speeds up impatiently, lines ramming into each other; the pounding coda, conversely, is pent-up and ominous, delaying gratification—”We used to wait for it/And now we’re screaming, ‘Sing the chorus again’ “—before finally, after a repeated chant of “Wait for it!,” withholding gratification altogether.
It’s a thrilling effect, that restraint, though it’s the delayed gratification of the dozen prior tracks that gets you. Nothing here is remotely terrible, each tune an intricate marvel of indie-gone-mainstream orchestral-rock bombast—harpsichords and squealing feedback mesh uneasily as the slow-burning “Rococo” struggles to whip itself into a lather—but even something terrible might have brought relief, a jolt of unease or incompetence to ease the suburban (yes!) stultification. Butler hammers at his themes, most prominently The Kids—”kids” being an even more dangerous word, appearing here four times as often as “pure”—repeatedly imploring you to “Grab your mother’s keys/We’re leaving tonight” and warning of a suburban war that sounds delightful until you realize it’s a battle against stasis you’re doomed to lose immediately: “By the time the first bombs fell/We were already bored.” If that’s not a short enough epitaph, try “Feels like I’m losing the feeling,” and the hell with it.
Amid such a pretty but same-y morass, the faster tunes—”Empty Room” (the galloping strings finally bursting into the foreground) and “Month of May” (a surly, Neil Young–style burner vastly appealing in its tossed-off-ness as it seethes at all the kids with “their arms . . . folded . . . tight”)—stand out merely by virtue of being . . . faster. It takes Chassagne to pull us out of the rut again, moaning ecstatically through the gorgeous churn of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a loose and lithe synth-pop blast (evoking the Knife, thoroughly and inexplicably) airlifted from a much brighter, better album. The sonic palate otherwise never changes: Feel free to avoid “Sprawl I (Flatland)” and both halves of “Half Light,” all of them sumptuously morose, more chest-beating doom-saying without the giggly release of a smashed guitar to reward you. The Suburbs comes to the not exactly paradigm-shattering conclusion that the suburbs are hard to leave, harder to forget, and harder still to entirely disown: “If I could have it back/All the time we wasted . . . you know I’d love to waste it again,” goes the eerie title-track reprise that finally wraps this thing up. No, it never wastes your time, this album, but things that do waste your time tend to leave more of an impression.
The Arcade Fire play Madison Square Garden August 4 and 5