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.
Someone please cut the lights?