Archive for May, 2013

The Suburbs: ‘We Used to Wait’

We Used to Wait (almost a suite in itself) functions as a companion piece to Deep Blue, dealing with similar themes of technology in recent decades. But while that song focused more on the actual technology itself, this track considers the side-effects of said technology’s now-omnipresence.
The song begins with a lone piano pounding away in A-minor, soon joined by Butler’s croon and sparse percussion; with the fourth line the mix adds an electronically pulsing organ:

I used to write, I used to write letters, I used to sign my name.
I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met, the times had already changed
(some really funky effects here)

So I never wrote a letter, I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown…

Win is singing here on two levels: on the surface, yes, it’s about how he no longer writes letters. But go a level deeper—and it’s a bit more sinister—and it’s a commentary on the sped-up pace of today’s world. If Arcade Fire’s songs are any indication, our media-oversaturated broadband culture is creating a generation of emotionally-numb insomniacs.

In that last line, why have the lights cut out? Is this a repetition of the violent wind/solar flare motif from Month of May? Did someone cut the lights (as Reginé pleads in Sprawl II)?
For that matter, what is ‘the wilderness downtown’ (besides an exceptional media experience we’ll look at later)? Is this perhaps sometime after, and we’re speaking of a literal, re-wilded city, the end result of the Wilderness Downtown video?:
City Reclaimed
Or is it a comment on the fact that in Our society, our educational system churns out graduates without the knowledge necessary for true survival (because in Our Culture, being able to survive amounts to being an obedient worker so you can collect green pieces of paper to exchange for rent and locked-up food) in the uncivilized Wild?

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last

Seems pretty self-explanatory.

Don’t it seem strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive?
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive

Indeed. I’ve been there, spending a summer waiting for a postcard from a distant like-minded lady-friend. And when those letters arrive, man, there’s the whole experience of it: opening the envelope, getting a waft of perfume, unfolding the pages, reading, the whisper of paper as you turn the pages, aahhhh… It’s the same with CDs; I’m not a vinyl snob in terms of sound (“but LPs sound so warm!” they all tell me), but I do like the ritual: admiring the square foot of album art, sliding the album out of the sleeves, putting it on the turntable, lowering the needle, and that sound as the needle drops. Ugh, there’s no permanence to electronic forms of books, music, correspondence—it’s just electrons zipping around; cut the power and it’s gone.

We used to wait, we used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait, all those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

There are those adolescent ‘wasted hours’ again. I’m still not sure what the wilderness he speaks of here is, because I’m really drawing a blank on all the wasted lives there. Some have suggested that the wasted lives are the corporate Suits, going to their soul-crushing cubicle jobs because they pay the bills, but being ultimately miserable and unfulfilled because they’re not “[writing] a letter to [their] true love”. Or as Eugene Hutz puts it: “zombies and willful slaves, living in their tiny private caves/crooked hands, digging up their graves”:

Okay, it's from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

Okay, it’s from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table I wanna walk again, gonna move through the pain

There’s a lotta talk on this album about moving past feelings and moving through pain. Huh.

We used to wait for it, now we’re screaming “Sing the chorus again”
I used to wait for it, Now I’m screaming “Sing the chorus again”
Wait for it!

Win now applies the immediate-gratification aspect of digital culture to his own circle of the music industry. I remember growing up, you’d hear a song on the radio, and you didn’t know when you’d hear it again; sometimes it felt like you could go years without hearing a particular song, and then one day there it was, outta the blue, and man, it just made your day. With a simple switch in pronoun, Butler admits that he’s not immune to this technological convenience either, but he doesn’t have to like it—remember, this is from the same guy who “don’t want it faster, don’t want it free”. In the end, the listener is urged to cultivate patience, and wait for it!

The Suburbs: ‘Deep Blue’

Here are my place and time
And here in my own skin, I can finally begin
Let the century pass me by
Standing under a night sky, tomorrow means nothing

It was with this song that I first started to suspect that there was an ‘Arcade Fire Sound’, which I can now articulate as ‘dystopian songs in A-minor with funky electronic backings’.
Once again, we have a reference to at long last being able to start or begin. Could it be that our singer—like that of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Muzzle, with its epiphanic climaxis at last at peace with his place in the world? After all, in the infinitude of multiverse, there can really only be one you in this time, this place.
As for that last line, the night sky falls neatly into the category of uncivilized Wild imagery; when you spend time soaking in the non-human world, you begin to realize how silly our attempts to control the flow of time really are. Spend an evening stargazing and tomorrow really does mean nothing. Here’s an experiment: go to bed early one night, then get up an hour or two before sunrise, and just watch and experience how the sky changes colour in the foredawn. There’s something sublime about the slow glow of a sunrise that the instantaneous flick of an electrically-charged liquid crystal can never capture.

I was only a child then feeling barely alive
when I heard a song from the speaker of a passing car
And prayed to a dying star, the memory’s fading
I can almost remember singing la la la, la la la la…

Now, another quintessential-Butler verse vignette: our singer as a boy (if it’s Win, this takes place in the ’80s), a car drives past, the radio plays some half-forgotten song. As for the identity of that song, Win has suggested that it might’ve been Depeche Mode, which would be pretty awesome if that’s the case. My real question is—what’s the dying star? Is it the general state of things, or our relationship with technology (because at its heart, that’s what this—and the next—song is all about)?

We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen, a dead star collapsing,
and we could see that something was ending
Are you through pretending? We saw its signs in the suburbs!

Now, after turning the page of the millennial calendar, things are different. Glowing screens abound; people walk around all day with shiny devices stuck to their faces, cutting them off from all those around them; people experience life with gadget-screen as intermediary, recording and uploading every trifling moment of our lives. We’re connected, but we’re not connecting.
When our singer “was only a child”, the star (and the state of things) was merely dying; twenty-odd years (an entirely insignificant amount of time, on the planetary scale) later, that star has now died, and begun to collapse.
What could they see that was ending? While I’d like to say ‘the System’ or ‘the suburban way of life’, I think it would hit closer to the mark to say a world in which people were just people—we weren’t completely married to (and overly reliant upon) our beeping, glowing screens just quite yet.
I suppose it’s possible the Singularity is the endpoint of this path down which we’re blindly proceeding, but we must remember that it didn’t happen overnight, the signs were there in the ’burbs for all to see.

fate
You could never have predicted that it could see through you,
Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996
Your mind’s pulling tricks now
The show is over so take a bow, we’re living in the shadows of…(something unintelligible)

Solid recent-history reference. For those of you who might not have been around or were busy watching MTV in 1996, Deep Blue was the IBM supercomputer that—with shades of Watson— saw through and beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in their first game. Granted, Kasparov eventually won the six-game match 4-2, but Deep Blue won the rematch 3½-2½ the following year.

Was Kasparov’s loss—to a machine—one of the “signs” seen in the suburbs?

The bit about living in the shadows is tricky, because it gets lost in the mix under the “la la la la” refrain; it might be “shadows of the night”, “shadows of the song”(that’d be a nice callback), or “shadows of the lie”, each of which could alter the interpretation of the song.

Hey, put the cellphone down for a while
In the night there is something wild, can you hear it breathing?
And hey, put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild, I feel it, it’s leaving me

Note that they don’t sing, “Hey, throw the cellphone/laptop away”, just to “put [it] down for a while”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technology—cellphones and computers aren’t innately bad, if you use them to talk to friends and loved ones instead of playing Angry Birds or trolling the comment sections of Youtube—just don’t abuse and overdo it to the point of becoming grotesque and rococo, “where you have all this information that you don’t need or want but the medium is there so it’s filled up.”

(And yes, I’m completely aware of the irony that I’m writing this on my laptop, to be broadcast out into the electronic aether to be read by strangers. But at least when I’m done, I’m going to do just what Win and Regine say, and put the laptop down for a while, and go do some wood- and leatherworking with handtools.)

The Suburbs: ‘Speaking in Tongues’

One of two tracks added to the deluxe edition of The Suburbs, Speaking in Tongues may have even less analyzable material than the mostly-empty Empty Room.



Hypocrite reader, my double, my brother
Your daddy really took it outta you
Until you’re speaking in tongues

That first line isn’t just something that sounds cool to sing, it’s also just about the only link this song makes to the larger vision of The Suburbs. Because, you see, Butler has lifted this originally-French lyric (“You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frere!”) from Mr. T.S. Eliot’s masterwork The Waste Land (line 76).
It’s for that reason that I place this track here after Wasted Hours, with its apt description of “endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead”—which sure sounds like a wasteland to me. Sadly, that’s about all there is to say about this song. With the title phrase’s religious connotations, I would almost think this song to be a better fit on Neon Bible, but sadly there’s still not enough material to link it to that album either.

Sneaking out the windows now
You got the spirit now!

If I had to make a stretch, I could equate sneaking out the window in this song with the oppressed youth of Half Light I, torn from their safe beds by the call of the Wild Night (“We are not asleep, we are on the streets”).

Hypocrite reader my double, my brother
Where did we lose our way?
It’s like we’re speaking in tongues

Hypocrite reader, my double, my brother
Now I can’t understand the words
Now you’re speaking in tongues

Come out of your head and into my world now

Speaking in tongues…

In the song’s last section, we hear from everybody’s favorite floorlamp-dancer, David Byrne:

On the tracklist, this song is “Speaking in Tongues (featuring David Byrne)”, but Featuring is a rather strong word, as he seems to contribute little more than a few “ahh-hhaa’s”. I think his appearance here functions mostly as some serious meta-referencing (Speaking in Tongues being Byrne’s band Talking Heads’ breakthrough 1983 album). Generally speaking in the last thirty years or so, the term ‘Art Rock’ has been synonymous in most people’s minds with Talking Heads.  With his involvement in this song, however, I think Byrne has passed the mantle of Preeminent Art Rock Group to worthy recipients Arcade Fire.

The Suburbs: ‘Wasted Hours’

As it closes, Month of May forms yet anther two-part movement with a fade from thumpy 80s rock into laid-back strummy guitar.

All those wasted hours we used to know
Spent the summer staring out the window
The wind, it takes you where it wants to go

Here in this song is where we see the origin of the message most people take away from this album—that “wasted time is sometimes more meaningful than the stuff that “matters”. Those carefree days in which, while we didn’t do anything ‘productive’, we made friends and goofed off and hung out, and gods willing, hopefully we’ll keep in touch with them after we are shoved out the door into the ‘real world’ (aka the wage-slave prison).
I like how the verse’s last line has an element of allowing oneself to be swept along by a natural force. You don’t go where you want to go—you go where the wind wants to go. Don’t try to force your ego and desires; instead, yield to and follow those natural currents.

First they built the road, then they built the town
That’s why we’re still driving around and around
And all we see are kids in buses longing to be free

Hmm, I have the strangest feeling we’ve heard this before… As before:
LLipton-Round&Round
Why, I wonder, are all these kids trying desperately to escape? Could it be perhaps that the Suburbs (and the System as a whole) don’t work for people?

Some cities make you lose your head
Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead
And what was that line you said?
Something about how our time it owns us…

Interesting how it’s some—not all—cities; I guess the key is finding the ones that don’t make you go crazy. Powerful last line, and I have the damnedest time expressing it in words, so here’s some propaganda I hope expresses the same sentiment:
time was made for slaves - smash the clocks of domination
Wishing you were anywhere but here
You watch the life you’re living disappear
And now I see, we’re still kids in buses longing to be free:
SuckerPunchBusToParadise

In this verse, our singer sees his old friend from the wasted hours in the suburbs. The friend has likely ‘grown up’ and done all the things Our Culture says we’re supposed to do to be ‘successful’—go to college, get a job, buy a car, work your way up the ladder, get married, have some kids, &c.—and as a result he has become stuck in the Prison of a nine-to-five, 40-hour-week job, order takeout for supper, glued to the television every evening, beer and televised sports on the weekends. He is miserable and wants out  (first line ^), as this soul-crushing industrialized way of life is antithetical to the idea of freedom that they likely clung to as youngsters before they were fully ‘civilized’. In this routine, each year goes by in a blur, each one faster than the one before (second line ^).

Wasted hours before we knew where to go and what to do
Wasted hours that you made new and turned into a life that we can live

 I was seventeen when the last Star Wars film came out. I had spent the previous ten years immersing myself in that galaxy far, far away, absorbing the lessons encoded in those frames of film. One day in May, my best friend and I put the finishing touches on our junior year of high school, went home to watch the first two episodes, went to the midnight showing of the third, drove home, slept in the yard, and spent the next day watching the classic trilogy back-to-back. When it was over, I looked at him and I asked, “Now what? What do we do now?” That decade we spent hobbit-camping in the woods and studying the holy trilogies was our Wasted Hours. I think I decided that day that I needed to use what I’d learned, to ensure those hours weren’t just killing time before I got forced into a meaningless job. Which is why I teach those lessons I first learned from Old Ben and the others in everything I do—lessons of the Living Force and my place in the community of life, that are written on the universe for all to see. I hope I’ve taken those hours and “turned them into a life that we can live”.

The Suburbs: ‘Month of May’

Man, when was the last time you heard a real rock-and-roll song that started with such a solid and sincere, “1, 2, 3, 4!”? It’s funny, while I’ve heard so many of Arcade Fire’s songs described as ‘anthemic’, not too many of them are real fist-in-the-air singalongs. Month of May, however, is definitely one:

Gonna make a record in the month of May
When the violent wind blows the wires away

This isn’t the first time on this album that we’ve heard about a wind blowing things around; the first time this thread was touched upon was in Rococo, which seems to serve as a companion piece to this song. However, while last time the wind was simply blowing around ashes, this time the wind is explicitly violent. Which begs the question: What is the violent wind? Is it a primitivist social movement, tearing down our culture’s machinery of enslavement (wires, &c.) like a force of nature? Is it a blast of radiation from a nuclear mushroom cloud (the EMP produced by high-altitude detonations could fry electronics and effectively “blow the wires away”)? Is it a massive solar flare, playing havoc with our unshielded power grid? Hmm…

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

I believe the band has spoken in interviews how May is the time when Winter finally ends in Montreal, and everybody is full of an almost-violent energy with the promise of Spring. I’ve spent some time in Montreal, and it’s definitely the kind of place that would make my heart start to sing.
However, singing that “sounds like screaming” doesn’t sound too pretty. Is this the same as the “horrible song” being sung in Rococo? Butler has explained in interview that these songs were inspired by the Baroque period, and the notion that a beautiful piece of art could become “hideous and grotesque” by ‘turning it up to eleven’; the same could be said of the modern music industry, that it’s possible to take something decent and beautiful “and overdo it” into a rococo mockery of itself.

Month of May, everybody’s in love
then the city was hit from above
And just when I knew what I wanted to say
The violent wind blew the wires away

Traditional associations with May as ‘the lusty month’—all those young people’s springtime hormones—juxtaposed with violence. Once again, Butler’s songwriting exhibits a subversive undercurrent dealing with the destruction of our modern built environments.  I wonder if the city destroyed in this song is the same as the San Francisco of Half Light II?

We were shocked in the suburbs
Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Now, some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
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?

Why were they shocked in the suburbs? As hinted at previously, is it because the ’burbs are designed to artificially insulate their inhabitants from the blows of Life? A city being “hit from above” is the kind of event that seems impossible (until it happens) to middleclass suburbanites. The rest of the verse is—like much of Rococo—another jab at that “certain breed of pseudorebellious youth”, the cynical hipster-types who are too-cool-for-school to uncross their arms to just get up and DANCE!

First the built they road, then they built the town
That’s why we’re still driving around and around and around…
(At least once at this point, Win has observed, “I don’t know where we are, but I know that something ain’t right”)

LLipton-Round&RoundAs brilliantly illustrated by pencil artist Laurie Lipton, it’s hard to break out of this vicious cycle of consumption, disconnection, and environmental destruction when the whole System is designed and built to encourage and reward those very evils.

2009, 2010—wanna make a record how I felt then
When we stood outside in the month of May
And watched a violent wind blow the wires away

Another reference to recent history (see Half Light II’s crashing markets) as Butler seems to break the fourth wall. So now we’re in the realm not of future dystopia but something that actually happened?

If I die in the month of May, let the wind take my body away,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Don’t leave me down there with my arms folded tight?
Start again in the month of May
Come on and blow the wires away

There are several songs on this album that speak of finally being able to start or begin, or starting again—this time, with fried wires. The destruction of the powergrid (or whatever) in the Springing of the year has given us an opportunity for a fresh start when we might connect with ourselves and the world—perhaps this time we will build the towns—if we build them at all—before we build the roads.

The Suburbs: ‘Culture War’

This track didn’t appear on the original release, but comes from the deluxe edition that was released with Scenes From the Suburbs; as such, it was just lumped onto the end of the normal songlist with the other new song (they were also released together as a single). I’m inserting it here between Suburban War and Month of May, mostly because I like the dynamic between the two different ‘wars’.
While it contains good conceptual examples of the underlying themes of the band’s overall vision, it doesn’t make many solid lyrical connections to any other Suburbs songs; as such it’s hard to find things to say about it. The review above smartly summed it up as “hardly worth mentioning” except as “a deleted scene from an already recognizable film.”

Now the future’s staring at me
like a vision from the past,
and I know these crumbs they sold me,
they’re never gonna last.

Why does the future look like the past? Probably owing to the fact that for our dominant culture—technological inflation aside—nothing has really changed in the last six thousand years? Women (and men with feminine traits) are still viewed as inferior, the living systems of the nonhuman world are still being exploited and destroyed for ‘profit’, governments enforce their centralized power with the threat of military might, patriarchic organized religions preach a misguided belief in flawed humanity, and people sell their time at “work” in exchange for locked-up food. And until more people start imagining a different way (and as humans, imagination is the big thing that sets us apart from our non-human family), things are probably going to stay this way.
Note that the crumbs are sold, but not necessarily bought—this from the man who “don’t want the salesman knocking on [his] door”. There’s something powerful in that, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Like the “ocean in a shell” in Half Light I, he’s only getting a tiny taste (crumbs) of something sublimely bigger, authentic, and more satisfying. Like a lot of pop culture, the crumbs are ultimately just momentary entertainments that distract us from the underlying issues obscured by Our Culture.

Though we know the culture war, we don’t know what it’s for
but we’ve lived the southern strategy,
but we’ve lived the southern strategy,
You know it’s never gonna last, so keep it in the past.

Playing on fears is the lowest way to keep people in control, and in the end it’s no good, because eventually they will wise up to it. Even in the US&A, as the demographics continue to shift, ever so slowly social views are changing (witness the most recent presidential re-election).

These are different times that we’re living in, these are different times.
Now the kids are growing up so fast, paying for our crimes.

Kids growing up so fast, literally and figuratively. Hormones in the milk and all that.

You left while I was sleepin’, you said, “It’s down to me”
Oh I’ve read a little Bible, you see what you want to see.
Oh, we know the culture war, we don’t know what it’s for
but we’ve lived your southern strategy.
You know it’s never gonna last so keep that shit in the past.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our certain point of view.”

The dominoes they never fell but bodies they still burn.
Throw my hand into the fire but still I never learn, will I ever learn?

Again, powerful words but so vague without any solid connections to the other songs.

That these are different times.
Now the kids are growing up so fast and paying for our crimes.
We’ll be soldiers for you, mommy and daddy, in your culture war.
We’ll be soldiers for you, mommy and daddy, but we don’t know what it’s for.

The culture war that Win sings of isn’t a war between Red and Blue States, nor even one of our uniquely American wars-on-an-idea (The Drugs, Terror, Poverty, &c.), but the unspoken and largely unrecognized framework of Our Culture. Simply by raising their offspring in this particular mental environment (at its most basic, a culture of war), parents are ensuring that their children will grow up to be “soldiers”.

We’re soldiers now in the culture war.
We’re soldiers now, but we don’t know what it’s for.
So tell me what’s it for.
You want it? You got it, here’s your culture war.
You want it? Now you’ve got it, so tell me what’s it for.

The Suburbs: ‘Suburban War’

In Suburban War—which will take us to The Suburb’s halfway mark—we see reminders of most of the album’s main themes, including nostalgia for passed youth, alienation, war, driving, and escape, plus a very interesting notion that (like most songs on the album) solidly links back to previous material. The track begins with a beautifully bleak solo guitar playing the main riff, which is soon joined by pounding drums and high, keening fills and strummed chords from a second and third guitar(?).

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
This town’s so strange, they built it to change
And while we sleep, we know the streets get rearranged

Boy, that’s yet another problem with the way our whole postpostmodern Industrial Lifestyle Suburban System is designed (the ‘why’ for this will be better explained come the Month of May): it doesn’t matter if you’re bored, scared, or otherwise “don’t feel right”—the answer is always ‘Go drive.’ Burning some more fossil fuels is sure to make you feel better.
And again, more changing streets and towns. Unlike the Shire, it seems things in the Suburbs and Sprawl aren’t “made to endure”. By this point in the album, I’m really starting to feel bad for the suburban kids who grew up in what sounds like a constantly-shifting landscape. Out in the country where I grew up, ‘changing streets’ meant that the highway department came through every few years and laid down some tar and fresh gravel.

With my old friends: we were so different then before your war against the suburbs began…before it began
Now the music divides us into tribes, you grew your hair, so I grew mine
You said the past won’t rest until we jump the fence and leave it behind

It’s in songs and passages like this one that people really key in on the nostalgic themes of the album. Now we come to a very exciting concept in this verse’s second line: a connection between tribalism and Music. Although it is said to “soothe the savage beast”, is Butler here proposing that in Music is found an escape from the civilizing influences of the suburbs? Possibly, if it be authentic. But such escape can be double-sided, however: if those tribes are just corporate cookiecutter scenes (see the now-meaningless labels like ‘indie’, ‘emo’, ‘metal’, ‘goth’, ‘punk’, ‘gangsta’, ‘hardcore’, &c promulgated by such outlets as Hot Topic) this inevitably leads to the empty lifestyle described in Rococo, which laments for victims of commodification and branding at the hands of the Merchants of Cool.
Finally, note the use in the third line of penal-system diction—escape from the Taker mind-prison is possible only by turning one’s back and “[jumping] the fence”.

With my old friends: I can remember when you cut your hair, I never saw you again
Now the cities we live in could be distant stars, and I search for you in every passing car

If there’s one good thing that can be said about Scenes from the Suburbs (luckily there are in fact many good things to be said about that film), it is that it fully elucidates this verse.
Here, however, is where it gets personal for me—because back in high school, I was the one who grew his hair and inspired his best friend to do the same; I was the one who cut his hair the day after graduation, I was the one who discovered deep-green, anarcho-primitivism and declared war on the whole System (and the suburbs along with it). Now, though those friends live in the ’burbs only an hour or two away, they’re sucked into the quicksand of the suburban American Dream wage slave rat-race and we see each other maybe three times a year. Distant stars, indeed.

The nights are warm, yeah, the night is so long
I’ve been living in the shadows of your song

This is a puzzling reference back to a line from Ready to Start: “I would rather be wrong than live in the shadows of your song”. So, if our Suburban War singer has been living in those shadows, what then does that mean? That he has been right? Right about what?

In the suburbs I, I learned to drive
People told me we would never survive
So grab your mother’s keys, we leave tonight

Preceded by plaintive moans, this subtly-different reprise of the album’s opening lines packs a much greater sense of urgency and bleakness. Compare to:
“In the suburbs I learned to drive/And you told me we’d never survive/Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving…”
Through all these songs, Butler seems to suggest that the only way to survive the suburbs…is to escape them.

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

I’m assuming that the “war we can’t win” is the war against the suburbs begun by our singer’s lost friend in the second verse. If some find it troubling that someone like Butler sees a conflict against the Suburbs/Sprawl/System as hopeless, they’re not getting the message. It would seem that the answer encoded in the Arcade Fire’s works isn’t ‘rage against the machine, tear down the suburbs, and start over’, but something more like, ‘find your tribe, turn your back on the suburbs, and don’t look back. If you’re doing something that works, people will recognize that and take notice.’ That is, things won’t change if the bluepills are simply told not to live the way they currently do—they must be see that there is an alternate way that provides for all their needs, and works.
With this verse’s final couplet, Butler seems to bare his teeth and draw a line in the sand, restating his prayer that he “won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.

But my old friends, they don’t know me now
All my old friends are staring through me now
All my old friends wait…

The pounding climax of the song is alienation, plain and simple. It might have resulted from change (“we were so different then”), or it might be by choice (“I would rather be alone than pretend I feel alright”). But while our singer’s “old friends wait” (for things to change?), he is through with waiting; it’s time to do.