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.

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