Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

On ‘Children of Men’


I often describe this film to the unfortunate folks who haven’t heard of or seen it as “2007 turned up to 11” (actually, I think I did read an interview with the art director (or someone?) who explained that the future of the film had to be “like the present, but more so”). In that way, it’s like the cinematic equivalent of James McMurtry’s 2005 We Can’t Make It Here Anymore, a song that similarly captures the turned-up-to-11 bleakness of the Bush years:

Basically, it’s all the worst parts of the Oughts, where if you watched the news it looked like a possible war with Iran, climate change data was coming in and being disregarded, bird flu was on the horizon, Somalia was imploding (again), and it was gray and rainy for like, a month straight. Well, add a pandemic of infertility and throw it all into a blender with some beautiful cinematography and a very interesting soundtrack and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is what you get. In other words, because its roots are solidly in the actual present, it’s an entirely plausible (and thereby cautionary) future.

Together, this film and Max Brooks’ World War Z have probably had the biggest impact on my outlook of a postapocalyptic world; since both futures draw inspiration from histories past and present, both reinforce the fact that almost nothing happens in a vacuum: waves of refugees can result from distant wars (“Africa devastated by nuclear fallout” a background newspaper reads), rising sea levels (Maldives, anyone?), crop failures (don’t even get me started on totalitarian monocrop agriculture), &c.  It’s a good exercise—I can look at a scenario in one of these works and see how it might have come to be, and then pull back farther to see how it relates to what’s happening now.
By extension, these two properties have also played a huge role in influencing my philosophy on our idea of ‘survival’ in its current form, doomsday-ism, &c. As both are essentially topical, applicable, and political (as opposed to the apolitical, purely-entertainment ‘Zombie 2.0’ media wave), I don’t worry about The End of the World; I’ve always found it more important to focus on The End Of The World As We Know It (aka The End of Our Culture’s Unsustainable Way of Life), I educate myself on the key shatterpoints in play (and their root causes), and then imagine (or find in history) sustainable alternatives to embrace.

On a superficial level, this is also one of the few films where I see or pick up on something new each time I watch it (ditto for reading WWZ). I would love to see an annotated version of the film that takes time to point out all the little shout-outs (everything from Banksy’s art, Pink Floyd, and T.S. Elliot to next-gen military hardware and the use of oranges as foreshadowing a la The Godfather, &c.).
Actually, that might be a fun future post

Finally—and people always look at me like I’m batshit insane when I say this—this is my Christmas movie. Why? Best let me deconstruct it:

Our story takes place in December.
A man and an expecting woman travel together, going through many obstacles.
The woman is with child, but not by the man.
The woman’s child is the result of a miraculous conception.
The child will apparently redeem humanity.
The protagonist goes through his journey wearing sandals.

Now, did I just outline Cuaron’s Children of Men, or the story of the Nativity?

shanti shanti shanti!

The Suburbs: ‘Sprawl II’

The Sprawl tunes are the album’s final duo, but interestingly enough they—unlike all the other two-part suites—don’t segue into each other; even stranger, it’s We Used to Wait that settles into Flatlands. It’s a weird choice given the pattern of the others, but alas. Musically, once this song gets pumping there’s a definite early-mid-Eighties influence; at times I think I hear strains from Blondie’s Heart of Glass. As I’ve noted earlier, the Sprawl suite is a musical inverse of the Half-Light suite, beginning with a bleak song and essentially ending the album with a song I almost hesitate to call buoyant.
I’ll admit: I was a latecomer to Arcade Fire. Seeing Reginé perform this song on an SNL rerun aired a few months after their controversial Grammy win was my introduction to the band. And the scary thing is, I almost didn’t watch it. I often fast-forward through SNL’s musical acts, but this time I dunno, maybe I let it play while I got up to grab a snack or something, but I remember picking out the word pretentious. Which is funny, because based on my very vague pop-cultural-osmosis understanding of Arcade Fire at the time (comprised of two items: they were from Montreal, and were an “indie” band, whatever that means), pretentious was the word I would’ve ignorantly used to describe them. How wrong I was! Anyway, hearing that P word piqued my interest, so I thought, “let’s see what these Canadian hipsters I’ve heard about can do”, sat down, and watched the performance. Twice. As I’ve said, it would figure that Mountains Beyond Mountains would be my introduction to the band, what with its throbby danceable beat, fem singer, and vaguely-eco lyrics. Although it would take like, four months before I took the next step and listened to The Suburbs in its entirety, I was hooked from the outset.

They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
These days my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface
‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind

Regarding the first three lines: this is an essential frustration of Our Culture, and especially for Millennial Young People in this culture. We are raised to follow our instinct for freedom and free expression, but as soon as we’re shoved out the door into ‘the real world’ we’re suddenly expected to conform and keep our heads down in order to get by (except maybe for on the weekends when we’re allowed to cut loose in socially-sanctioned opportunities for consumption). Those of us with little interest in entering the wage economy are continually dogged by bluepills to “figure out what we’re going to do with our lives”, who assume the only worthwhile employment is one in which we sell our time to others for money. We’re told that unless we’re ‘gainfully employed’, we’re wasting our time, purposeless. However, while we might not know “where to go or what to do” with our lives, we do know where we don’t want to go, what we don’t want to do.
We want to sing, to shout, to feel truly alive…but such nonsense is the realm of Lefties, Greenies, Hippies, Humanists, Liberals, Leavers, and all other manner of people closer to Wild than to Civilized on the domestication spectrum, those who still value life over Our Culture’s concept of ‘wealth’. They ask us why we can’t just be ‘normal’ like everyone else (i.e. turn off your brain and don’t think)?
The city lights shine superficially, yet still they call to these suburban youth. Even though they’re unhealthy, unsustainable-by-nature resource-vacuums, we are still drawn to cities, in hopes of finding our tribe and connecting with others like ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small that we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl, dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

I touched on this in Sprawl I, but I’ll leave it to Mr. Max Brooks to explain this pre-apocalyptic wasteland of modern civilization:

“Cities weren’t cities anymore, you know, they just grew out into this suburban sprawl. Mrs. Ruiz, one of our medics, called it “in-fill.” She was in real estate before the war and explained that the hottest properties were always the land between two existing cities. Freakin’ “in-fill,” we all learned to hate that term. For us, it meant clearing block after block of burbland before we could even think of establishing a quarantine perimeter. Fast-food joints, shopping centers, endless miles of cheap, cookie-cutter housing.” (World War Z, 317).

Based on sentiments suggested by Deep Blue, We Used to Wait, and others, I think it’s safe to assume that cutting the lights includes turning off one’s array of gadgets as well. As for needing someone to cut the lights, I think that’s where folks like Derrick Jensen step in.

Can we ever get away from the Sprawl, living in the Sprawl?

We rode our bikes to the nearest park
Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark
We shield our eyes from the police lights
(I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this as ‘You shield my eyes’, which is really sweet)
We run away, but we don’t know why

Besides the recurring use of the word sprawl, this scene is a pretty solid connection to the first part of this suite—both involve Kids riding bikes at night with police nearby. Why do the Kids in this song instinctively hide and run away from the cops? They’re just hanging out in a park at night, what’s the big deal? Why do we have such an inherent opposition to figures of authority in civilization? Do we know in our hearts that these systems are not acting for our own good? There’s a reason we refer to cops as ‘the long arm of the Law” (as the civilized Law incarnate, these officers are automatically set against the Wild folks who value life over money mentioned earlier).

Black river, your city lights shine
They’re screaming at us, “We don’t need your kind”

Where before the city lights shined and “[called] at me, now that our emblematic protagonist has successfully found her tribe in the urban jungle the lights shine and “[scream] at us. Is this the cycle for postpostmodern youth: born and raised in the suburbs, then drawn to—and subsequently repulsed from—cities, only to return back to the ’burbs to perpetuate the cycle? In an interview I did a few years ago, I suggested that this current batch of sub/urban Millennials should consider resettling in the country instead of in the Sprawl, where they just breed more White yuppie-hipster types.

Or as one reviewer described, the whole Sprawl suite is a “rumination on age and change, how children struggle for years to leave the suburbs for the city only to often welcome the return to the suburbs when the chance arises years later.”

Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small, can we ever get away from the sprawl?

Me too, Reginé. Me too.

And don’t worry, I haven’t forgot about the wonderful video project for this song. It’ll eventually be covered along with the other audiovisual media the band has produced.

© Ed Graham Photo

Someone please cut the lights?

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: ‘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 Sububs: ‘Half Light II’

…an ominous, pulsating undercurrent, quickly joined by an equally-ominous thumping bass drum. All at once, this is overtaken by a mix of harmonica(?), synth strings, and drum machine beat—introducing what one reviewer astutely called “a new doom-laden hint of electronica”. The vocals of the verse stanzas are backed only by the drum machine and synth/bass; in between the verses, however, we get the full arsenal of the intro.

Now that San Francisco’s gone, I guess I’ll just pack it in
Wanna wash away my sins in the presence of my friends

Right off the bat, we are presented with what would seem to be yet another example of city-destruction. It makes one wonder, where did San Francisco go? Was it blown up? Was it “hit from above” by the violent wind of Rococo and Month of May? As for the rest of this verse, some have interpreted it to refer to a kind of survivor’s guilt on the part of the singer, wishing he had been with his friends in the city when it was destroyed.

You and I we head back East to find a town where we can live
Even in the half light, we can see that something’s gotta give

It is in compositions like this when the line begins to blur between the narrative of the singer and the narrative of the actual band. This stanza in particular brings to mind the biography of Arcade Fire found on their first album Funeral (“Members fled from Texas and Ontario at a young a and joined with local youth making their home in Montréal, Quebec, Canada.”); additionally, this verse seems to reference the Suburbs song Wasted Hours (subtitled A Life That We Can Live), which will deal with similar issues of seeking a connection to one’s own place.
Here we also have the sole use of the song’s title. Although from this line it might seem that the half light is now (instead of fallout in the future, as in the first part of this movement), because Butler’s lyrics have that nasty habit of jumping around in tense, I can’t know for sure. If that is the case, then perhaps we can say the Half Light in this song is the present kind of twilit, Long Emergency-type of slow decline of the world we know? Our characters are smart enough to look around and see that the way our culture functions can’t last (i.e. “[has] gotta give”), and so they are going East in search of a way to live that works.

When we watched the markets crash, the promises we made were torn
Then my parents sent for me from out West where I was born

Here we have a succinct reference to recent history (others feature in Antichrist Television Blues, Windowsill, Month of May, and Deep Blue, and probably in others) to ground us in the present, and yet another borrowed phrase from a previous work: parents also send for the kids in The Woodlands National Anthem—a song that, like the Half Light movement, deals with most of the band’s big ideas.

Some people say we’ve already lost,
but they’re afraid to pay the cost for what we’ve lost

It’s interesting to note that this is the first and only mention of fear on The Suburbs. This lyric is so convoluted the way it loops back on itself that it’s quite powerful to hear but I am completely unable to articulate what is meant by it.

Now that you have left me here, I will never raise my voice
All the diamonds you have hid in this home which has no life

A truly uninterpretable verse. Some have suggested that the singer’s old home was destroyed while he was away; hard to say. Let’s assume that the song conveys a definite story. It would seem that our characters (proxy Win and Regine, or proxy Butler Brothers?) were off in the East, searching for a life of their own (in the direction of proxy Montreal?). But then the markets crash, and their parents call them back to the West (proxy Texas or San Francisco?). Something happens to the Bay City; everybody dies? The characters still make the journey to their birthplace, though it is desolate and empty, and find their old home. While the Half Light has “torn them free” (see the first part of this movement), their freedom is mixed with tragedy, their friends and possibly parents are among the casualties (remember that this song is subtitled No Celebration).

Oh, this city’s changed so much since I was a little child
Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild

This verse may be one of the most indicative of Arcade Fire’s grand theme. Here we see the recurring motif of rearranging streets (things are not made to last in the ’burbs, nor—to take the big-picture view—in our postpostmodern industrial culture), while Butler roots himself firmly on the side of the uncivilized with a whoop.
Furthermore, I’m unsure if this verse is being sung by the song’s narrator, or by Win himself in the present. While it’s possible to assume that the city referred to may be the devastated San Francisco (though Win wasn’t born in SF, it is the closest city to his birthplace of Truckee, CA), I would expect him to have more connection to a childhood home instead of a birthplace.

Though we knew this day would come, still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born I now see through a dead man’s eyes

One wonders what day this verse refers to; in the framework of the band’s overarching themes (especially Neon Bible)—though it almost seems too easy—one can assume that “this day” is one of long-expected-but-sudden collapse or destruction. No matter how one prepares for such eventualities, you can never be sure when it will actually occur.
Musically-speaking, the dropping-out of the supporting instruments in this verse—and their sudden return for the following final refrain—only adds immensely to the weight of the words.

One day they will see it’s long gone…

Like Half Light I, the second half closes with an anthemic refrain, this particular chorus seems like a reiteration of the “It’s already passed” motif from The Suburbs.

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.