Posts Tagged ‘sprawl’

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: ‘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.

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.

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: ‘The Suburbs’

In the suburbs I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving

Three words in and we’re already knee-deep in the ’burbs; the singer relates how he gained that all-important skill for postwar civilized life—driving—in the cul-de-sacs and tract housing that is The Suburbs.
One must wonder on what grounds it was believed they wouldn’t survive in the ’burbs?, because our Mother Culture’s conventional wisdom is that the ’burbs are a great place to live. Regardless, if they’re not going to survive (maybe because the system the suburbs are built upon is inherently unsustainable and unsurvivable?), they’re getting out.
We haven’t seen the last of this sublime little triplet of a verse, and it will show up again—with some subtly powerful changes—around the halfway point of the album. Start checking off those keyword themes, kids: twenty words in and we’ve already touched on a place (the suburbs), driving, and Escape.

You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war,
Your part of town against mine.
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored.

The second verse introduces what is probably this album’s biggest connection to Neon Bible, ominous war imagery. As the album’s first scene, Scenes From the Suburbs covers this concisely in the first thirty seconds as our heartsick narrator explains, “There was always some sort of conflict going on…towns would attack each other if a golf course was built too close to a border, or if a shopping center gave off too much light pollution…”.
As to why they “were already bored”, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll say it was something to do with millennial emotional numbness and desensitivity as a result of overexposure to hyperviolent mass media.

The kids want to be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screaming
And running through the yard
When all of the walls that they built in the ’70’s finally fall,
And all of the houses they built in the ’70’s finally fall
Meant nothing at all?
It meant nothing…

Ah-ha, our first mention of The Kids! They want to be tough, because our Mother Culture tells them that’s how they should be, to bury their feelings deep down? However, despite their attempts “to be so hard”, they’re still screaming in dreams. What kind of screaming is it—fearful (the bombs are falling, remember?) or existentially frustrated (the suburbs are a stultifying environment for restless youth)?
And what of the walls and houses from the Seventies? Are they falling due to the bombs, or due to abandoned decay, or are they only metaphor for things that keep us from connecting with each other?

Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling
And into the night

We move on to the falsetto refrain, possibly restating a sentiment of emotional deadness. But now our singer is moving into the night. The harsh orange glare from the sodium-vapour streetlights doesn’t penetrate into that shadowy area, so why go there? Perhaps that is the reason for the attraction?: as we will see, “in the Night there is something Wild”, out of reach of the civilizing grasp of the Suburbs.

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand, and show her some beauty,
Before all this damage is done.
But it it’s too much to ask, then send me a son.

In this verse we hear another motif from Neon Bible, the request for a child. Note, however, that the reason for the request has evolved from its previous, exploitative iteration—
“Oh God, would you send me a child?/Because I want to put it up on the TV screen/So the world can see what your true word means/Lord, won’t you send me a sign?/Because I just got to know if I’m wasting my time” (Antichrist Television Blues)—to the entirely healthier appeal of the above verse. Believing that “damage” (read: destruction) is looming (in the form of the World War mentioned in Windowsill and City With No Children, or in the violent collapse of the suburban/civilized system?), he wants to show his daughter at least something nice before it all goes up in flames.

Under the overpass, in the parking lot, we’re still waiting
It’s already passed
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass
Cause it’s already passed!

Our final verse gives us vignettes in the first line—visualized in SFTS
of the Kids killing time in the Sprawl. It’s hard to tell (Butler’s lyrics jump around from past to present tense and back again), but I suppose the first two lines could be the singer looking back narrating the scene of his youth—“Look at us, wasting hours, waiting for our lives to begin”—with that third line directed at his past self, essentially saying, “Get out!”
Here one wonders what is “already passed” that makes the singer implore us to step off the asphalt and onto the cool green? Is it that the time of the suburbs itself is passed, and it’s time to imagine a different way to organize ourselves and form communities, one that is more organic and better-suited to humans? Or that we should first simply seek out the organic and discover the new way on our own? Either way, these closing lines seem to direct us to get out of the concrete jungle and into the Wild.

‘The Suburbs’: Context & Composition

The Suburbs is (the) Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, and it continues to build on the themes of their EP and previous albums, especially 2007’s Neon Bible—so much so that it really seems a bit like a sequel or side-quel to that record.
In fact, the idea of successive sidequels continuing to explore deeper facets of an original’s theme reminds me of the life’s work of another Houstonite, Daniel Quinn, whose writings could (from a certain point of view) be interpreted to deal with the same issues as Arcade Fire (such as calls for change in how we relate to our communities; escape from the world in its present form; and imminent environmental destruction). I wonder if the Brothers Butler have read any Quinn?

But where Neon Bible seemed to focus on a cultural and environmental collapse/apocalypse brought on by the potent overlap of politics, overconsumption, religion, and television (which is to say, it’s an album about Right Now), The Suburbs dials down the doom to zoom in a bit.
While it’s entirely possible that both albums occupy the same universe, this time around, the story—while set against a backdrop of suburban war—is more intimate, focusing on a Millennial generation of nostalgic, dissatisfied Young People—alienated by technology and the sterile uniformity of their modern surroundings—yearning for a rewarding way of life outside the Sprawl.
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with that serious description, but it’s just as deathly topical as its predecessor.

To provide comparisons as we start our examination of this album, I’m going to be relating examples from my previous favorite concept album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), partially because they’re surprisingly similar in presentation, and partially because I’ve invested so much time studying that double-LP monster over the years it would seem like a waste if I didn’t.

So, for starters, both albums begin with an atypical-sounding first track or two. I have to wonder what the first ’Pumpkins fans to hear MCIS in 1995—expecting something similar to the swirling guitar layers of Siamese Dream—thought upon hearing the piano/synth and orchestral strings of those first two tracks (the ’Pumpkins’ signature sound would return in spades by MCIS’s third track); similarly, the splash of cymbals and the deceptively cheerful piano line that opens The Suburbs might’ve surprised Arcade Fire fans, although I suspect they’re smart enough to understand the band’s penchant for making songs in a wide variety of styles.

Since we’re talking about arrangement, I feel I should—even though I promise I’ll discuss it later as part of this series—draw attention to Scenes from The Suburbs at this point, specifically how Spike Jonze rearranges the album’s tracks to great effect to open his film.
As exciting an opening as those splashy cymbals on The Suburbs are, they sound way better when preceded by sorrowful narration and the melancholy strings of an extended version of The Suburbs Continued (the album’s coda track).
Hey kids!, just for fun, next time you listen to the album, try playing that reprise as the first track. Pretty cool, huh?
So, compositionally-speaking, this opening title track functions as an overture or prologue, containing concentrated versions of the album’s themes. The next song will open the programme proper (MCIS’s first ‘scene’, jellybelly, begins with the words, “Welcome to nowhere fast”; while after its prologue, The Suburbs launches with Ready to Start, a song that would be a perfect album-opener by nature of its musical composition, title, and lyrics).
The songs that follow will explore the themes first broached in the prologue, reaching an emotional climax about halfway through the album (Muzzle for MCIS; Suburban War for The ‘burbs), and ending the album with a Reprise of the main theme, which acts as ‘end titles’ for the listening experience.

Said title track (or in the case of MCIS, the second track, since the title track is instrumental) contains concentrated versions of most of the key themes examined in the course of the album (and in a larger sense, in all of Arcade Fire’s works). While there is some significant overlap for several of them (due to exploration of dichotomies, for instance—all coins having two sides, to be able to discuss something like the Wild without being aware at least on some level of its opposite would be an impressive feat of Orwellian thought), in their distilled forms the album’s themes may be classified thusly (in no particular order):

  • children/childhood/youth/adolescence
  • nostalgia for said carefree times ^ (the “wasted hours”)
  • Millennial Young People of today (“the Kids”)
  • music/singing/screaming
  • modernity/recent history
  • Place: Cities/Downtown/the Sprawl/Towns/the Suburbs/Home
  • one’s connection to said locales^, (especially issues that arise when said locales^ change)
  • roads and driving (inherent in our relationship to said modern locales^)
  • Destruction (either in the form of War, or another nonspecific source, and often of said locales^)
  • Technology (and its effect on the speed of life), and waiting (as metaphor for a slower-paced life)
  • alienation (often as a result of said technology)
  • authority figures with ‘power’ (emperors, kings, soldiers, police, &c.)
  • tribalism
  • insomnia/sleeping/dreaming
  • Escape
  • the “Wild” (often represented by “the Night”, used as a catch-all term for the natural/organic/uncivilized)

In fact, if someone asked me to further hyper-refine The Suburbs in 25 words, I’d say it is about ‘the dichotomy between Civilization/The Wild (and all that go along with both), explored from the vantage point of Young People in the early 21st century.’
But of course, that’s coming from someone with an anthropology/anarcho-primitivist background. Hell, as Win sings on Culture War, “You see what you want to see.”

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?

‘The Suburbs’: Coming Soon

With the TV season more-or-less concluded, I’m going to be spending the off-season reposting topical pieces from my pop-media blog before I shut it down. Expect ‘new’ posts every couple of days or so for the next couple of months.
I don’t usually go for disposable pop ditties, one-hit wonders (unless it’s summertime, in which case all bets are off), or anyone you would find on a shirt sold at Hot Topic. I’m also not into finding the most obscure entertainment possible. I like mainstream books and music and film, but only if it’s quality stuff that I can return to, study, and internalize: I figure that with so little in common with most folks, I need something relatable to talk about.
Because having things in context (historical, chronological, or whatever) helps me see t­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­he bigger picture and thereby understand things better, I’m going to set this up with an abridged version of my personal musical journey.

Y’know, it’s funny how albums come into our lives at just the right time. When I was like, thirteen—after hearing references to Stairway to Heaven for years—I finally dug out my folks’ copy of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. I sat down, spun it, and for the first time, really deliberately listened to a record. It was absolutely perfect timing, because it tied into all the Tolkien I was diving into, and probably saved me from the waves of generic nu-metal and raprock bands (and their fans) that were inundating my school and the airwaves around that time. After a childhood spent listening to artists like CSNY and James Taylor with my parents, Led Zep was my first musical foray out into the wider world, becoming the first well-regarded band I could call my own, helping me keep my head above water at least long enough for me to properly cultivate my musical tastes.

Even though I was somewhat familiar with it through mid-‘90s osmosis, it wasn’t until I was eighteen, right before I graduated high school, that I got ahold of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (yet again, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really get into an album that’s been forced on me: it has to be an independent, organic—and sometimes serendipitous—discovery).
So, MCIS, the album that would see me through college? A loose concept album dealing with themes of fear of change and loss of youth, wrapped up in trippy Victoriana? Perfect for an undergrad with steam on the brain. Though it was probably the third concept album I’d listened to (after Sgt. Pepper’s and Ayreon’s The Dream Sequencer), the little call-backs between songs, the recurring motifs, and the visual style of the whole project really pulled me in. As a result, there were a couple of years where, if I was going to be in the car for two or—factoring in all the b-sides—three hours, it was a safe bet that Mellon Collie would be spinning in my Discman.

During my senior year, I somehow stumbled on the common thread between the other band that got me through junior high—Nirvana—and the Pumpkins: Courtney Love. Building on my penchant for 1990s female musicians, but needing something with a little more bite than the womyn of the Lilith Fair set, I quickly latched onto Hole, and soon along came Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Veruca Salt, and the like.

Fast-forward: a year out of undergrad, after drifting around taking seasonal jobs here and there and watching about three-fourths of my friends get married in less than a year, I happened upon Regine Chassagne wailing about dead shopping malls and cutting the lights on SNL. Of course, it would figure that my introduction to Arcade Fire would be the song with the throbby beat, vaguely-eco- lyrics, and the chick singer.
“Oh, snap!”, I thought. “So all that talk I’d been hearing of this band was about an album of alienation, war in the ‘burbs, and how we relate to our built environment? Sign me up for that!”

And so, The Suburbs. Two years later, and I still think it’s the perfect album for Right Now. It’s got a long runtime (75 minutes with the extra tracks), but as a pretty tight concept album (translated to visuals in Spike Jonze’s Scenes from the Suburbs), it zips right by. And it’s funny how much I love this album, because I’m the last person you’d think would appreciate it: I’m about the furthest thing possible from the suburban kids this project focuses on, but I am an alienated Young Person who loves the Wild and/or hates the sprawl of civilization, and has carefree memories of friends who are now all moving away, settling down, and getting married, so the songs still speak to me in that way.

So, to mark this album’s second anniversary, I’ll be starting a series looking at The Suburbs—the songs themselves, the album as a whole, and the band’s associated multimedia experiments.