‘The Suburbs’: Context & Composition

The Suburbs is (the) Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, and it continues to build on the themes of their EP and previous albums, especially 2007’s Neon Bible—so much so that it really seems a bit like a sequel or side-quel to that record.
In fact, the idea of successive sidequels continuing to explore deeper facets of an original’s theme reminds me of the life’s work of another Houstonite, Daniel Quinn, whose writings could (from a certain point of view) be interpreted to deal with the same issues as Arcade Fire (such as calls for change in how we relate to our communities; escape from the world in its present form; and imminent environmental destruction). I wonder if the Brothers Butler have read any Quinn?

But where Neon Bible seemed to focus on a cultural and environmental collapse/apocalypse brought on by the potent overlap of politics, overconsumption, religion, and television (which is to say, it’s an album about Right Now), The Suburbs dials down the doom to zoom in a bit.
While it’s entirely possible that both albums occupy the same universe, this time around, the story—while set against a backdrop of suburban war—is more intimate, focusing on a Millennial generation of nostalgic, dissatisfied Young People—alienated by technology and the sterile uniformity of their modern surroundings—yearning for a rewarding way of life outside the Sprawl.
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with that serious description, but it’s just as deathly topical as its predecessor.

To provide comparisons as we start our examination of this album, I’m going to be relating examples from my previous favorite concept album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), partially because they’re surprisingly similar in presentation, and partially because I’ve invested so much time studying that double-LP monster over the years it would seem like a waste if I didn’t.

So, for starters, both albums begin with an atypical-sounding first track or two. I have to wonder what the first ’Pumpkins fans to hear MCIS in 1995—expecting something similar to the swirling guitar layers of Siamese Dream—thought upon hearing the piano/synth and orchestral strings of those first two tracks (the ’Pumpkins’ signature sound would return in spades by MCIS’s third track); similarly, the splash of cymbals and the deceptively cheerful piano line that opens The Suburbs might’ve surprised Arcade Fire fans, although I suspect they’re smart enough to understand the band’s penchant for making songs in a wide variety of styles.

Since we’re talking about arrangement, I feel I should—even though I promise I’ll discuss it later as part of this series—draw attention to Scenes from The Suburbs at this point, specifically how Spike Jonze rearranges the album’s tracks to great effect to open his film.
As exciting an opening as those splashy cymbals on The Suburbs are, they sound way better when preceded by sorrowful narration and the melancholy strings of an extended version of The Suburbs Continued (the album’s coda track).
Hey kids!, just for fun, next time you listen to the album, try playing that reprise as the first track. Pretty cool, huh?
So, compositionally-speaking, this opening title track functions as an overture or prologue, containing concentrated versions of the album’s themes. The next song will open the programme proper (MCIS’s first ‘scene’, jellybelly, begins with the words, “Welcome to nowhere fast”; while after its prologue, The Suburbs launches with Ready to Start, a song that would be a perfect album-opener by nature of its musical composition, title, and lyrics).
The songs that follow will explore the themes first broached in the prologue, reaching an emotional climax about halfway through the album (Muzzle for MCIS; Suburban War for The ‘burbs), and ending the album with a Reprise of the main theme, which acts as ‘end titles’ for the listening experience.

Said title track (or in the case of MCIS, the second track, since the title track is instrumental) contains concentrated versions of most of the key themes examined in the course of the album (and in a larger sense, in all of Arcade Fire’s works). While there is some significant overlap for several of them (due to exploration of dichotomies, for instance—all coins having two sides, to be able to discuss something like the Wild without being aware at least on some level of its opposite would be an impressive feat of Orwellian thought), in their distilled forms the album’s themes may be classified thusly (in no particular order):

  • children/childhood/youth/adolescence
  • nostalgia for said carefree times ^ (the “wasted hours”)
  • Millennial Young People of today (“the Kids”)
  • music/singing/screaming
  • modernity/recent history
  • Place: Cities/Downtown/the Sprawl/Towns/the Suburbs/Home
  • one’s connection to said locales^, (especially issues that arise when said locales^ change)
  • roads and driving (inherent in our relationship to said modern locales^)
  • Destruction (either in the form of War, or another nonspecific source, and often of said locales^)
  • Technology (and its effect on the speed of life), and waiting (as metaphor for a slower-paced life)
  • alienation (often as a result of said technology)
  • authority figures with ‘power’ (emperors, kings, soldiers, police, &c.)
  • tribalism
  • insomnia/sleeping/dreaming
  • Escape
  • the “Wild” (often represented by “the Night”, used as a catch-all term for the natural/organic/uncivilized)

In fact, if someone asked me to further hyper-refine The Suburbs in 25 words, I’d say it is about ‘the dichotomy between Civilization/The Wild (and all that go along with both), explored from the vantage point of Young People in the early 21st century.’
But of course, that’s coming from someone with an anthropology/anarcho-primitivist background. Hell, as Win sings on Culture War, “You see what you want to see.”

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?

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