Posts Tagged ‘Win Butler’

The Suburbs: The Wilderness Downtown

As smart and innovative as the Sprawl II dance-video is, Arcade Fire found a way to top themselves, with The Wilderness Downtown web experience.

wilderness_downtown

note the use of fractal-based ‘roots’ to form the words—
the sublime wonders of Nature!

This amazing interactive is based around the song We Used to Wait and therefore ties deeply into the underlying themes of The Suburbs—roads, connection to place, escape, youth, the wild, and interaction with technology—while at the same time being a potent showcase of digital wizardry (it was designed to highlight the capabilities of Google Chrome and HTML 5).

Unfortunately, TWD is custom-made to each user’s environment, so I can’t put up a video for you to watch; you’ll just have to try it yourself (although this page provides a decent overview). It’s recommended to use the address of your childhood home, which works really well if you grew up in the ever-shifting sprawl of American ’burb-land, because it’s quite likely that said environment no longer appears as you remember it (“this town’s so strange/they built it to change/and while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged”). Me, I grew up way out in the country, which doesn’t pack nearly the same punch.

Once your experience is compiled, we open with an anonymous, hooded young person running through the streets of The Suburbs. Based on the urgency expressed, he’s clearly not just out for a jog. What is he running from? As we’ve seen throughout the album, when the prevailing narrative of Modern Kids raised in the ’burbs is to seek escape by fleeing to the city only to return to the ’burbs as ‘adults’—who wouldn’t blame him for wanting to Get Out?
wilderness_downtown runner
Throughout, we follow our running figure from high overhead, drifting along with a flock of birds, as well as at street-level courtesy of Google.
Eventually, the video culminates with some very-likely eco imagery as the trailing birds begin to divebomb into the ground, causing trees to grow up beautifully and cover the map in a sea of rewilded green. Of course, this is really only effective if the map—and therefore your childhood home—is in a deforested suburb.
This all transpires over the song’s final section, in which Win implores us to “Wait for it!” As I’ve said before, the song is all about cultivating patience in the face of a technologically-increased pace of life, which brings us to The Wilderness Machine.
Now, back during the middle section of TWD—over the “I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name” verse—we took a break from watching our harried runner and were invited to “Write a postcard or advice to the younger You”, using super-cool fractal-roots. Now, while Arcade Fire was still touring to support The Suburbs, their concerts would coincide with appearances of said Machine—a steampunk-y contraption which would print out postcards submitted from TWD. While that alone is a great way to play around with the back-and-forth between digital and analog suggested by We Used to Wait, here’s the best part: the postcards that the Machine printed out were embedded with tree seeds!—so that you could take someone’s former self’s postcard home and reforest your own environment, thus bringing TWD’s video experience full circle into the real world.
And believe me, nothing cultivates patience like growing a tree.

The Suburbs: The Suburbs Continued

If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again

If I could have it back, you know I’d love to waste it again
Waste it again and again and again, I forgot to ask…

Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling again

This short track brings little material to the conceptual framework of the album, yet adds greatly to the album’s cinematic nature—it’s not a stretch to picture The Suburbs Continued playing over end credits. After evoking the black-and-white films of Golden Age Hollywood with a lush string section (perfectly exemplifying the song’s theme of nostalgia), Win wistfully thinks back to his formative adolescence. As I’ve said before, that time might’ve not have been ‘productive’ as we usually define it, but some good still came out of it: in a determinist sense, we are all products of our own wasted hours. Furthermore, for a lot of folks in this culture, the wasted hours are the ‘best years of our lives’ that we’re supposed to reminisce about and strive to relive once we’re out into the real world of wage-slavery: witness the former high school football star whose successful car dealership can never compare to his glory days as a quarterback. You know the type.

Finally, after a subwoofer-rattling rumble, the song (and the album) ends with a slow fade of Win and Reginé returning to The Suburbs’ chorus. This coda also works perfectly as an album opener as well (try it sometime!), underlining the viciously cyclical nature of the escape from and return to the ‘burbs tackled by the album.

And with that, we wrap up the eighteen monster tracks of The Suburbs. After all that Millennial angst, I think it’s time to take a well-deserved break to look at some recent cinema. But don’t worry, we’re not done with Arcade Fire by a long shot.

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: ‘We Used to Wait’

We Used to Wait (almost a suite in itself) functions as a companion piece to Deep Blue, dealing with similar themes of technology in recent decades. But while that song focused more on the actual technology itself, this track considers the side-effects of said technology’s now-omnipresence.
The song begins with a lone piano pounding away in A-minor, soon joined by Butler’s croon and sparse percussion; with the fourth line the mix adds an electronically pulsing organ:

I used to write, I used to write letters, I used to sign my name.
I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met, the times had already changed
(some really funky effects here)

So I never wrote a letter, I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown…

Win is singing here on two levels: on the surface, yes, it’s about how he no longer writes letters. But go a level deeper—and it’s a bit more sinister—and it’s a commentary on the sped-up pace of today’s world. If Arcade Fire’s songs are any indication, our media-oversaturated broadband culture is creating a generation of emotionally-numb insomniacs.

In that last line, why have the lights cut out? Is this a repetition of the violent wind/solar flare motif from Month of May? Did someone cut the lights (as Reginé pleads in Sprawl II)?
For that matter, what is ‘the wilderness downtown’ (besides an exceptional media experience we’ll look at later)? Is this perhaps sometime after, and we’re speaking of a literal, re-wilded city, the end result of the Wilderness Downtown video?:
City Reclaimed
Or is it a comment on the fact that in Our society, our educational system churns out graduates without the knowledge necessary for true survival (because in Our Culture, being able to survive amounts to being an obedient worker so you can collect green pieces of paper to exchange for rent and locked-up food) in the uncivilized Wild?

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last

Seems pretty self-explanatory.

Don’t it seem strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive?
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive

Indeed. I’ve been there, spending a summer waiting for a postcard from a distant like-minded lady-friend. And when those letters arrive, man, there’s the whole experience of it: opening the envelope, getting a waft of perfume, unfolding the pages, reading, the whisper of paper as you turn the pages, aahhhh… It’s the same with CDs; I’m not a vinyl snob in terms of sound (“but LPs sound so warm!” they all tell me), but I do like the ritual: admiring the square foot of album art, sliding the album out of the sleeves, putting it on the turntable, lowering the needle, and that sound as the needle drops. Ugh, there’s no permanence to electronic forms of books, music, correspondence—it’s just electrons zipping around; cut the power and it’s gone.

We used to wait, we used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait, all those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

There are those adolescent ‘wasted hours’ again. I’m still not sure what the wilderness he speaks of here is, because I’m really drawing a blank on all the wasted lives there. Some have suggested that the wasted lives are the corporate Suits, going to their soul-crushing cubicle jobs because they pay the bills, but being ultimately miserable and unfulfilled because they’re not “[writing] a letter to [their] true love”. Or as Eugene Hutz puts it: “zombies and willful slaves, living in their tiny private caves/crooked hands, digging up their graves”:

Okay, it's from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

Okay, it’s from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table I wanna walk again, gonna move through the pain

There’s a lotta talk on this album about moving past feelings and moving through pain. Huh.

We used to wait for it, now we’re screaming “Sing the chorus again”
I used to wait for it, Now I’m screaming “Sing the chorus again”
Wait for it!

Win now applies the immediate-gratification aspect of digital culture to his own circle of the music industry. I remember growing up, you’d hear a song on the radio, and you didn’t know when you’d hear it again; sometimes it felt like you could go years without hearing a particular song, and then one day there it was, outta the blue, and man, it just made your day. With a simple switch in pronoun, Butler admits that he’s not immune to this technological convenience either, but he doesn’t have to like it—remember, this is from the same guy who “don’t want it faster, don’t want it free”. In the end, the listener is urged to cultivate patience, and wait for it!

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.