Sometimes, when lying in bed trying to sleep, I find myself slipping back to the past. Memories of old friends before time, differences, and distance took their toll fade back to the foreground to nag at my consciousness. We used to have so much fun together; what on earth happened? Revisiting my old neighborhood afterwards never offered much consolation. The few times my family and I visited since felt… off. Streets have been expanded, new houses built where there once were woods, and neighboring cornfields devoured by the insatiable suburban sprawl to join its sea of pavement and cheap strip malls.
It’s moments like these where it dawns on me—like I’m sure it does all of us at one point or another—that the world left part of who we were behind, filling the hole it left with a deep sense of alienation from our long-gone old friends, the ever-expanding suburban sprawl, and even the incomprehensible “modern kids” growing up in them now.
This is Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs.
Lost in the Sprawl
A blaring, carnival-like piano throws us head-first into the album’s self-titled opening track. Much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A”, the song’s lyrics carry a somber message in disguise. “The Suburbs” starts off with a cheery-sounding key riff as the singer fondly recalls memories of growing up in the ‘burbs and wasting time with friends during the dog-days of summer. Unlike “Born in the U.S.A”, however, the jaded, bitter undercurrent slowly reveals itself sonically as the violin and backing instruments artfully distort the once-cheery piano into a sorrowful swan song mourning the passing of the last bits of natural beauty the singer grew up with.
This theme of feeling uncomfortably “out of place” in the urban sprawl is further explored in “Modern Man”, a breezy daydream song which at times threatens to explode but always stops just shy to again resume the comfortable, monotonous guitar riff. In it, the singer clearly feels something’s off about playing the roll of the 9-5 Average Joe but seems to lack the language and emotional experience to fully express himself.
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…
He’s clearly on the brink of an epiphany, but every time he gets this far, he’s metaphorically or literally pulled aside and told he’s “going nowhere”. This leads him to inevitably fail and resign himself to his fate by repeating “I’m a modern man” while the song blows away as carelessly as it came.
I can’t help but see the similarities the song has with Katherine Mansfield’s “Garden Party”, a short story featuring a young, high-class girl which ends with her on the brink of an epiphany regarding her and her family’s fake, pompous life. Like our modern man, however, she literally lacks the language and emotional maturity to successfully complete the epiphany, implying that she too reverts back to square one at the end of the story as she fails to complete her thoughts.
But Laurie–” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life–” But what life was she couldn’t explain.
Arcade Fire continues exploring other aspects of unchecked urbanization with the increasing ubiquity of technology in “Deep Blue”1. It’s the sonic personification of wanting desperately to unplug from the hyper-stimulating LCDs flooding the world.
Put that cell phone down for a while
In the night there is something wild
Can you hear it breathing?
Following the sad trend set by the album, it’s implied that in the end—like “Modern Man”—the singer’s light is snuffed out as they succumb to technology’s siren song along with everyone else.
Put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild
I feel it, it’s leaving me
Kids These Days
It’s a rite of passage, once you get into your mid-twenties you’ll find yourself occasionally feeling out-of-touch with the “modern kids” nowadays. In The Suburbs it’s clear the then thirty-year-old Arcade Fire members are no longer the spunky early-twenties rockers they once were. They’re wiser for it, to be sure, but with that newfound worldliness comes even further separation from their audience’s primary demographic: teenagers. Instead of awkwardly pretending to still be “hip with the kids” like lesser bands have done in the past and failed miserably at, they wear their age like a badge of pride and throughout the album address kids not as fellow teenagers but as adult figures, starting with a scathing commentary on hipsters in the dizzying violin-led piece, “Rococo”.
They built it up just to burn it back down
The wind is blowing all the ashes around
Oh my dear God what is that horrible song they’re singing?
I can’t help but laugh at that line; by using the stereotypical “old person” response to new music they’re fully assuming the role of an adult figure when addressing younger folks in the album, which they follow through on in “Month of May”.
As an ‘ol fashioned head-banger akin to what you’d hear at a basement or garage show, “Month of May” is easily one of the most accessible songs on the album. In it, Arcade Fire directly addresses teenagers who are facing the same emotional struggles the adults in the album’s other songs faced. Like a trusted adult figure, they urge these kids to keep their fighting spirit alive instead of letting it die like every adult on the album has.
So young, so young
So much pain for someone so young, well
I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
I can’t help but appreciate just how well Arcade Fire assumes this role without coming across as condescending or as try-hard guidance consolers. Perhaps what makes it work so well is their complete lack of sugar coating. They practically admit in the song that most aspects of teenage life suck, while at the same time urging kids to open themselves up to the world regardless so they wouldn’t miss out on the few precious things in life that are “pure” and “right”.
While songs pertaining to the sprawl are generally focused on the present and future, nearly every song pertaining to the past focuses on fond memories shared with old friends. One of these is the sweet, tender “Half-Light I”, wherein the singer recalls running out late at night to hang out with friends when they were all supposed to be asleep. It’s unusual but refreshing to see this subject matter set to such a soft, heartwarming violin piece instead of the awful “Going Out to the Party Even Though You Were Grounded” trope that’s been beaten like a rented mule in every televised sitcom in history2.
In “Suburban War”, we see how close relationships such as these came to end through the lens of one particular friend. They were clearly close (“Let’s go for a drive and see the town tonight / There’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you”), but eventually stark differences in music preference and his friend’s spiteful “war against the suburbs” began to drive them apart.
But you started a war that we can’t win
They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in
Now the music divides us into tribes
You choose your side, I’ll choose my side
Despite things breaking bad between them, he still cares about his old friend and sincerely regrets how things turned out between them (“Now the cities we live in could be distant stars / And I search for you in every passing car”). However, he knows deep down that these hurt feelings will haunt him forever because there’s no chance of patching up what they once had; they have both changed so much since then that the person his old friend once knew, quite frankly, doesn’t exist anymore.
All my old friends
They don’t know me now
Throughout the whole album, we see both adults and children feeling like they don’t have a home and life to call their own and failing to address these feelings in constructive ways: some resorted to expressing their bitterness in unhealthy ways (the kids in “Month of May” and “Rococo” and the people drowning themselves in instant gratification in “We Used To Wait”), some retreated to the past for sanctuary (the driver in “Sprawl I: Flatland” and “Wasted Hours”), while others just gave up altogether (the “Modern Man” and the last remaining “unplugged” person in “Deep Blue”). Practically all these characters share one truth in common: they have all failed to “wake up”, either from failing to achieve an epiphany and giving up, crossing their arms and stubbornly not trying, or pouring their souls into technology or old memories in an effort to escape a life they’re unhappy with. In the case of the driver in “Sprawl I (Flatland)”—the first of the album’s two-part climax—he attempts dealing with his emotions by visiting his old childhood house in an attempt to convince himself there was once not just a house there, but a home. As you’d expect given the album’s track record, his trip fails to fill the void he feels in his heart as he realizes his childhood home was nothing more than “the house where we used to stay”.
Enter “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, a thunderous, joyous dance celebrating all the emotions explored on the album. You read that right, celebrating. Over groovy instrumentals akin to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, Régine belts out her desire to drop everything and run away from the unnatural florescent lights the endless, dead shopping malls around her bring, to once again experience the wildness of a dark night. While in isolation the lyrics themselves aren’t particularly hopeful, Régine’s delivery and supercharged instrumentals transform what perhaps could have been another depressing song into an inviting rallying call for listeners to join her in dance.
As the song draws near it’s end, bell-tower like “gongs” sound in the distance, piercing through the slowly fading instrumentals. It’s as if it’s struck midnight in the middle of a vast mall parking lot, it was so brightly lit you didn’t even notice it was night. Finally, with a dreamy, rose-tinted refrain of the self-titled opening track, the album draws to a close.
The Suburbs is a nostalgic album of genuine sincerity. Through it all, whether they’re recalling childhood friends, expressing concern about the state of expanding urbanization, or simply trying to reach out to the “modern kids”, Win Butler and the band crafted songs with the honesty and heart of this year’s bedroom Indy darling but with the nuance that only age and experience can provide. That’s not to say their age has negatively impacted their ability to identify with the youth; attempts to “reach des kids” are extremely difficult to pull off without accidentally insulting the intended audience. However, Arcade Fire time and time again manages not only to make it look easy but also to sneak in must-needed beatdowns in the process (“Rococo”).
Win’s love for his old neighborhood friendships, despite all the grief he carries about their end, is palpable. In case there was any doubt about this fondness, on the very last song on the album he idly wishes:
If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted
I would waste it again
Waste it again, and again, and again
This reenforces that he wasn’t just blowing hot air while telling the kids “some things are pure and some things are right” in “Month of May”. It seems that, despite everything else, these fond memories prevailed in his mind. To be clear, he and Arcade Fire went out of their way to express that this doesn’t negate any of the serious concerns they have with the suburbs, but those positive memories are there, and they do matter.
The next time you’re caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic with an hour or more of a commute to go, or you’re having trouble sleeping because you can’t help feeling awful about how once-good relationships ended, or you’re looking up at the night sky but can’t see the stars through the light pollution, consider throwing The Suburbs on and letting yourself explore and celebrate these feelings with Arcade Fire. And, if you’re so inclined and able, cut the lights.
Named after IBM’s chess computer, code named “Deep Blue”. It won it’s first-every game against chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1996, though still ended up losing the overall match until the following year. ↩︎
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: child wants to go to a party, parents grounded child from going either because of the party itself or an unrelated event, child still goes anyway by sneaking out at night, gets in trouble, and learns a valuable life lesson because of it. ↩︎