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Edwin Farnham Butler III, right, leads Arcade Fire during a performance in Nyon, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Salvatore Di Nolfi / AP)
Edwin Farnham Butler III, right, leads Arcade Fire during a performance in Nyon, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Salvatore Di Nolfi / AP)


Arcade Fire rocks its roots Add to ...

That would be the Houston suburbs, where Butler (along with his brother Will, also in Arcade Fire) spent his childhood and early adolescence. "I always felt kind of like a tourist," he says. "My dad was from Maine and my mom was from California. It definitely never felt like we were from there.... So I think this [disorientation]goes back further than stuff from the band."

Much of the album is taken up by this Proustian memory trip. There's scarcely a song among its 16 tracks that doesn't stress such words as suburb, town, city, houses, roads, sprawl. Butler says the fact that Arcade Fire albums each centre on a theme has less to do with conceptual planning than with his instinctive writing process, which spawns an urgent desire to attack a question from multiple angles.

What on the surface could seem an exercise in nostalgia turns out to be more about wrestling with the past's losses and portents, rediscovering the muddled but alert child who was father to the man who only then might have a shot at being a worthy father to another child. Early on, Butler croons, "So can you understand/ Why I want a daughter while I'm still young?/ I wanna hold her hand/ And show her some beauty before this damage is done."

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The Suburbs also casts a more jaundiced eye on the "modern kids" (someone else might have said hipsters) who "seem wild" but "are so tame" ( Rococo), "standing with their arms folded tight" ( Month of May) and "screaming 'sing the chorus again.' " ( We Used to Wait).

Butler's not necessarily turning against his audience: In those songs, he also catches his own arms folded and his own voice shouting for a chorus; in City With No Children, he suspects himself of being a "millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount." But he is raising the bar from some past songs that relied on youthful tribalism as refuge enough.

Does that have anything to do with a zeitgeist shift after the election of Barack Obama, for whom the band actively campaigned? Butler hesitates. "All music is connected to the times you live in," he finally says. "It's affected by the cultural moment."

But it's also a musical shift. While Arcade Fire albums have consistently expanded in stylistic diversity, The Suburbs makes a more decisive assertion: This isn't just some conceptual art project, it says; this is a rock band, and that means something. On previous tours, the group dressed in formal wear, and then in military gear. This year, they're in denim.

The record opens with barrelhouse piano that wouldn't feel out of place on a 1970s country-rock album. Much of its hour-long running time is spent on spare, succinct guitar riffs and figures that recall the Traveling Wilburys (which included two of Butler's heroes, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison), Neil Young or mid-period U2. Others rest on vintage pulses reminiscent of 1980s British synth-pop.

"My oldies are Depeche Mode and the Cure," Butler explains. "That kind of put a stamp on me. John Lennon always wanted his vocals to sound like Elvis, Buddy Holly, the music he was listening to when he was 15. Artists never really escape that. You don't choose what your inspiration is going to be."

For its climax, The Suburbs reaches for a truly unprecedented Arcade Fire sound. A skittering dance anthem sung by Chassagne, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), calls to mind Euro-disco hit machines Ace of Base or Boney M.

"It's always been a goal to have that flexibility, to play whatever we want," says Butler. "The Beatles could do a reggae-sounding song and not be a reggae band. I always wanted not to be pigeonholed in the kind of music we do. This is only our third record. There's lots of music we haven't gotten to yet."

You catch here a glimpse of the secret-classicist workhorse behind Arcade Fire's iconoclastic reputation. Perhaps The Suburbs heads the way Butler might have gone long ago if he hadn't been diverted by the bohemian ambience of his adopted Montreal - where, of course, he also found community, purpose and love.

Wherever it turns out to stand in the band's oeuvre, The Suburbs is ultimately - as Butler sings on Month of May, its ravingest rocker - just "2009, 2010 … a record of how I felt then."

"I think Arcade Fire understand who they are," says writer LeBlanc. "They're not overplayed, not overexposed."

And there are many more landings to be charted.

With a report from Katie Hewitt.

Arcade Fire play the Osheaga Festival in Montreal tonight, and Centre Island in Toronto on Aug. 14. The live stream of their Madison Square Garden concert hits YouTube next Thursday at 10 p.m. ET

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