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Arcade Fire: Turning An Ear Toward 'The Suburbs'

Arcade Fire is at once obvious and subtle, which could stand as one definition of a good popular rock band. If this group calls its new album The Suburbs, you can be sure that that's what an awful lot of its 16 tracks are about. Frontman Win Butler, raised in the 'burbs outside of Houston, Texas, knows enough about his subject to be ambivalent about it. On the one hand, the title song talks about the ticky-tack construction of suburban developments; on the other hand, it embraces the shared, sheltered culture of middle-class life without hostility or condescension.

One reason Arcade Fire has become an act that fills stadiums is the scope of its musical ambition. Its songs have the scale and sweep of anthems, and anthems sound most complete when there's a large audience to respond to them. The current version of Arcade Fire is a seven-piece band that builds momentum within each song -- unfurling guitar chords that ripple alongside the windiness of the band's lyrics.

I don't mean windy as an insult, either. Butler sings the grand, garrulous verses with the serene patience of a man who enjoys contemplating how best to live one's life. Arcade Fire may attempt arena-rock as overreaching as anything Bruce Springsteen or U2 has achieved, but the band also keeps the ideas specific and thoughtful. They sing lines such as "I want a daughter while I'm still young." In the song "City With No Children," they consider how to behave before "a world war does with us whatever it will do."

Many of the songs on The Suburbs stretch on past four or five minutes, and occasionally need to be broken into two parts -- or movements -- to achieve their full effect. The effect is nearly rock operatic, the music sometimes matching one of the song titles: "Rococo." But Arcade Fire manages the difficult task of shaping songs to match the guitar hook or the refrain the band wants to implant in your mind. They know the value of changing up the pace and varying the style.

At a time when most cool-kid bands are intent on churning out either chaotic sprawl or hip-hop-inflected hit singles, Arcade Fire is an unabashed album band -- in fact, that's the phrase Win Butler has used in interviews: "We're an album band." The band members see a collection of songs as their primary unit of creativity; they're going for the cumulative effect, they want their audience to spend time making connections between the songs and knitting them together to make The Suburbs something other than a crazy-quilt of alienation. It's difficult to do that without sounding derivative or self-consciously retro, but Arcade Fire has found a way to do it, with sincerity and vigor, and with frequently glorious results.

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Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Arcade Fire is a Montreal-based band that's grown in popularity from an obscure indie favorite to a group that can fill Madison Square Garden in less than a decade. The band's third album is called "The Suburbs" and rock critic Ken Tucker says it has the sweep and ambition of a rock opera.

(Soundbite of song, "The Suburbs")

Mr. WIN BUTLER (Singer, Arcade Fire): (Singing) In the suburbs, I learned to drive, and you told me you'd never survive. Grab your mother's keys we're leaving.

KEN TUCKER: Arcade Fire is, at once, obvious and subtle, which could stand as one definition of a good popular rock band. If this group calls its new album "The Suburbs," you can be sure that that's what an awful lot of its 16 tracks are about. Frontman Win Butler, raised in the burbs outside of Houston, Texas, knows enough about his subject to be ambivalent about them. On the one hand, the title song talks about the ticky-tack construction of suburban developments; on the other hand, it embraces the shared, sheltered culture of middle-class life without hostility or condescension.

(Soundbite of song, "Modern Man")

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) So I wait my turn, I'm a modern man. And the people behind me, they can't understand. Makes me feel like. Makes me feel like. So I wait in line, I'm a modern man. And the people behind me, they can't understand. Makes me feel like, something don't feel right.

Like a record that's skipping, I'm a modern man. And the clock keeps ticking, I'm a modern man. Makes me feel like. Makes me feel like.

In my dream I was almost there. Then you pulled me aside and said you're going nowhere. They say we are the chosen few. But we're wasted. And that's why we're still waiting.

TUCKER: One reason Arcade Fire has become an indie act that fills stadiums, is the scope of its musical ambition. Their songs have the scale and sweep of anthems, and anthems sound most completed when there's a large audience to respond to them. The current version of Arcade Fire is a seven-piece band that builds momentum within each song unfurling guitar chords that ripple alongside the windiness of the band's lyrics.

I don't mean windy as an insult. Butler sings the grand, garrulous verses with the serene patience of a man who enjoys contemplating how best to live one's life. Arcade Fire may attempt arena-rock as overreaching as anything Bruce Springsteen or U2 has achieved, but the band also keeps the ideas specific and thoughtful. They sing lines such as, I want a daughter while I'm still young. Or, as on this song, "City With No Children," considering how to behave before quote, "a world war does with us whatever it will do."

(Soundbite of song, "City With No Children")

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) The summer that I broke my arm, I waited for your letter. I have no feeling for you now, now that I know you better. I wish that I could have loved you then, before our age was through. And before a world war does with us whatever it will do.

TUCKER: Many of the songs on "The Suburbs" stretch on past four or five minutes and occasionally need to be broken into two parts or movements to achieve their full effect. That effect is nearly rock operatic, the music sometimes matching one of their song titles: "Rococo." But Arcade Fire manages the difficult task of shaping songs to match the guitar hook or the refrain the band wants to implant in your mind, and they know the value of changing up the pace and varying the style.

(Soundbite of song, "Month of May")

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Gonna make a record in the month of May, in the month of May, in the month of May. Gonna make a record in the month of May, when the violent wind blows the wires away.

Month of May, it's a violent thing. In the city their hearts start to sing. Well, some people singing sounds like screaming. Used to doubt it but now I believe it.

Month of May, everybody sing love. In the city, watch it from above. And just when I knew what I wanted to say, the violent wind blew the wires away. We were shocked in the suburbs. Now the kids are all...

TUCKER: At a time when most cool-kid bands are intent on churning out either chaotic sprawl or hip-hop-inflected hit singles, Arcade Fire is an unabashed album band in fact, that's the phrase Win Butler has used in interviews quote, "we're an album band."

They see a collection of songs as their primary unit of creativity; they're going for the cumulative effect. They want their audience to spend time making connections between the songs and knitting them together to make "The Suburbs" something other than a crazy-quilt of alienation. It's difficult to do that without sounding derivative or self-consciously retro, but Arcade Fire has found a way to do it, with sincerity and vigor, and with frequently glorious results.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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