The Suburbs: ‘Sprawl I’

BLEAK. That’s the only word to describe Flatlands. As the lingering piano of We Used to Wait fades out, we hear a dreary wind begin to blow. Over this comes the slow scraping boom of dejected footsteps. And then that hypnotic lone guitar kicks in, and the bleakness level goes up to eleven. Win’s tortured vocals resonate with their existentially-heartsick plaintive-ness:

Took a drive into the sprawl, to find the house where we used to stay
Couldn’t read the number in the dark, you said, “Let’s save it for another day”

Why don’t they take a walk into the Sprawl? Remember, “first they build the roads, then they built the town;” believe me, the Sprawl is definitely not pedestrian-friendly. Together with the general bleakness of this track, this verse conjures up scenes from McCarthy’s The Road in my head:
The Road
Took a drive into the sprawl to find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You’re talking at me but I’m still far away
Let’s take a drive through the sprawl, through these towns they built to change
But then you said, the emotions are dead; it’s no wonder that you feel so strange

Damn!, this is some serious slit-your-wrists-depressing shit! Again, we see a reprise of one of the album’s underlying themes–connection to a place that doesn’t exist. What can these Kids (and all of Us, for that matter) do when faced with such a recklessly world-consuming, cannibalistic, unsustainable-by-principle, life-annihilating pathology of a culture? Once again, nothing in this system is made to endure or last—towns least of all. When their whole worldview is based on infinite expansion and growth (in what they don’t want to admit is a finite world), the prevailing paradigm isn’t to repair and keep it running (pre-WWII-like), but to tear down and put up a new one in its place. (Of course, sometimes they don’t tear the old one down at all, but still build a new one somewhere else, leaving the old empty husk to decay; more on that in Sprawl II.) Naturally, these things are all made disposably cheap in the first place to make it easy to throw out and replace, because [sarcasm] there couldn’t possibly be a limit to the resources it’ll take to make new ones[/sarcasm], and anyway, this is the way humans were meant to live, right?
When you’re up against The Mess, things can look pretty hopeless. That’s where Arcade Fire come in.

Win Butler isn't a cop, but he plays one on tv.

Win Butler isn’t a cop, but he plays one on tv.

Cops shone their lights on the reflectors of our bikes,
Said, “Do you kids know what time it is?”
“Well sir, it’s the first time I’ve felt like something is mine, like I have something to give”
The last defender of the sprawl said, “Well, where do you kids live?”
“Well sir, if you only knew, what the answer is worth, been searching every corner of the earth…”

Dialogue! Finally, some concrete lines we can put in the mouths of characters – cops and kids!
I wonder if this is this the same time as the earlier verses, when the singer and his friend drive into the sprawl looking for their houses? I’m inclined to think it’s not, and they’re revisiting a memory from their Wasted Hours. Supposedly, these questions are what the local cops in The Woodlands (the ’burb where the Brothers Butler grew up outside Houston) would ask Kids they’d harass.

Imagine this scene: the cops stop the kids (who are just killing time in the cul-de-sacs one night), ask them these questions, and our singer has the audacity to give these ridiculous replies (he’s been well-conditioned to respect the badge and always call cops Sir, which is always a good idea for one’s self-preservation)! I’m surprised the cops don’t face-plant him on the ground right then and there for such cheekiness. I dunno, maybe that happens in an apocryphal final verse.

A word on the cop’s title: Last Defender of The Sprawl. The police here are symbols and figureheads of the civilized system, the embodiment of the anti-tribal law begun with Hammurabi only 3,700 years ago. Don’t it seem strange how in basic Social Studies classes that’s like, the first thing worth mentioning after the so-called ‘discovery’ of agriculture?
Or, as one Songmeanings user expressed it:

“The last defender” is the last cop that was needed to keep the sprawl spreading, because in the past people were fighting against it, against streets and malls taking over the forest, against machines and technology taking over nature and life. The sprawl required defenders and these defenders were cops because the sprawl is basically private property taking over what’s left of our common Earth. Now people don’t fight that anymore, they have surrendered to it, to the vision of human emotion as something undesirable, to the idea of exploiting and making profit out of every single thing in this world.
So, there’s no need for those defenders, anymore. The one in the song is the last one. There’s no need to protect something that’s everywhere. The kids have been searching but there’s no place in the whole world that feels like home anymore.”
Well-put, Graphe.

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