The Suburbs: ‘City With No Children’

Thankfully, Empty Room fades out into hand-claps and an ever-so-catchy guitar riff that heralds the opening of the rollicking City With No Children.

The summer that I broke my arm I waited for your letter
I have no feeling for you now, now that I know you better

While I can’t say for sure that it’s an intentional connection, Butler only refers to Summer twice on this album, each in a context of passing time. Together, he paints a complete vignette of a young man who breaks his arm, and spends the season staring out the window, waiting for snail-mail correspondence.

I wish that I could have loved you then, before our age was through
And before a world war does with us whatever it will do

This verse seems to refer back to the Neon Bible closing track My Body is a Cage, in which our singer bemoans that he is “…living in an age whose name I don’t know”. Well, in this song, that age has ostensibly ended; in interviews Butler has referred to “the current information age”, but is that what he’s referencing here? Given the band’s apparent socio-political slant, if we’re talking about an age whose name no one seems to be able to agree on, I’d like to submit the Holocene or Anthropocene for consideration, although Derrick Jensen’s Age of the Sociopath is more accurate.
And once again, there’s mention of a world war looming on the horizon (compare to Neon Bible’s Windowsill: “World War Three, when are you coming for me?”).

Dreamed I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground
There was no light that we could see as we listened to the sound of the engine failing

Aside from references to one’s home, and driving—possibly as a result of being called back West by one’s parents (Half Light II)—I’m not sure if this vignette is meant to mesh into the larger mosaic of this album, or if it’s just a testament to Butler’s great skill at composing tight verses. If you really want to get analytic and force a match with the album’s themes, that second line could be interpreted as “we had no hope while we watched the machinery that drives our system begin to break down and collapse”.

I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a billionaire inside of a private prison

Butler has explained how he was inspired to write this song when he received a picture “of an old school friend… standing with his daughter sitting on his shoulders “at the mall around the corner from where we lived”. He adds: “The combination of seeing this familiar place and seeing my friend with his child brought back a lot of feeling from that time. I found myself trying to remember the town that we grew up in and trying to retrace as much as I could remember.”
This also reminds us of the request for a child heard in The Suburbs; one can almost hear the singer’s biological clock ticking against a countdown to destruction. (As a cross-media connection, the only child-free city I can think of is London, circa 2027).

You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts about it

A Neon Bible-esque religious reference paired with a veiled fear of becoming a ‘sellout’; perhaps Win seems to be afraid that as he and the band become more well-known, the messages they spread in their songs might sound hollow and hypocritical. However, the very-down-to-earth Butler brothers have reassuringly tackled this topic in interviews:

Will: Maybe at some point we’ll get to the level where we have to really deal with the devil or decide to stay small, but so far we’ve been pretty much able to do what we want to do.
Win: I think you also have to want to be really famous. It’s a lot easier to sabotage your career than to have a career to sabotage [laughs].

When you’re hiding underground, the rain can’t get you wet
But do you think your righteousness could pay
The interest on your debt? I have my doubts about it

I’m really not sure what this verse refers to, but this isn’t the first time the band has sung about debt, although the last two occurrences (“I know no matter what you say/There are some debts you’ll never pay (Intervention); I don’t want to live with my father’s debt/You can’t forgive what you can’t forget” (Windowsill)) came from Neon Bible.

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