The Suburbs: ‘The Suburbs’

In the suburbs I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving

Three words in and we’re already knee-deep in the ’burbs; the singer relates how he gained that all-important skill for postwar civilized life—driving—in the cul-de-sacs and tract housing that is The Suburbs.
One must wonder on what grounds it was believed they wouldn’t survive in the ’burbs?, because our Mother Culture’s conventional wisdom is that the ’burbs are a great place to live. Regardless, if they’re not going to survive (maybe because the system the suburbs are built upon is inherently unsustainable and unsurvivable?), they’re getting out.
We haven’t seen the last of this sublime little triplet of a verse, and it will show up again—with some subtly powerful changes—around the halfway point of the album. Start checking off those keyword themes, kids: twenty words in and we’ve already touched on a place (the suburbs), driving, and Escape.

You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war,
Your part of town against mine.
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored.

The second verse introduces what is probably this album’s biggest connection to Neon Bible, ominous war imagery. As the album’s first scene, Scenes From the Suburbs covers this concisely in the first thirty seconds as our heartsick narrator explains, “There was always some sort of conflict going on…towns would attack each other if a golf course was built too close to a border, or if a shopping center gave off too much light pollution…”.
As to why they “were already bored”, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll say it was something to do with millennial emotional numbness and desensitivity as a result of overexposure to hyperviolent mass media.

The kids want to be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screaming
And running through the yard
When all of the walls that they built in the ’70’s finally fall,
And all of the houses they built in the ’70’s finally fall
Meant nothing at all?
It meant nothing…

Ah-ha, our first mention of The Kids! They want to be tough, because our Mother Culture tells them that’s how they should be, to bury their feelings deep down? However, despite their attempts “to be so hard”, they’re still screaming in dreams. What kind of screaming is it—fearful (the bombs are falling, remember?) or existentially frustrated (the suburbs are a stultifying environment for restless youth)?
And what of the walls and houses from the Seventies? Are they falling due to the bombs, or due to abandoned decay, or are they only metaphor for things that keep us from connecting with each other?

Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling
And into the night

We move on to the falsetto refrain, possibly restating a sentiment of emotional deadness. But now our singer is moving into the night. The harsh orange glare from the sodium-vapour streetlights doesn’t penetrate into that shadowy area, so why go there? Perhaps that is the reason for the attraction?: as we will see, “in the Night there is something Wild”, out of reach of the civilizing grasp of the Suburbs.

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand, and show her some beauty,
Before all this damage is done.
But it it’s too much to ask, then send me a son.

In this verse we hear another motif from Neon Bible, the request for a child. Note, however, that the reason for the request has evolved from its previous, exploitative iteration—
“Oh God, would you send me a child?/Because I want to put it up on the TV screen/So the world can see what your true word means/Lord, won’t you send me a sign?/Because I just got to know if I’m wasting my time” (Antichrist Television Blues)—to the entirely healthier appeal of the above verse. Believing that “damage” (read: destruction) is looming (in the form of the World War mentioned in Windowsill and City With No Children, or in the violent collapse of the suburban/civilized system?), he wants to show his daughter at least something nice before it all goes up in flames.

Under the overpass, in the parking lot, we’re still waiting
It’s already passed
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass
Cause it’s already passed!

Our final verse gives us vignettes in the first line—visualized in SFTS
of the Kids killing time in the Sprawl. It’s hard to tell (Butler’s lyrics jump around from past to present tense and back again), but I suppose the first two lines could be the singer looking back narrating the scene of his youth—“Look at us, wasting hours, waiting for our lives to begin”—with that third line directed at his past self, essentially saying, “Get out!”
Here one wonders what is “already passed” that makes the singer implore us to step off the asphalt and onto the cool green? Is it that the time of the suburbs itself is passed, and it’s time to imagine a different way to organize ourselves and form communities, one that is more organic and better-suited to humans? Or that we should first simply seek out the organic and discover the new way on our own? Either way, these closing lines seem to direct us to get out of the concrete jungle and into the Wild.


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